What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient

Let me preface this by saying, I am not pointing to a specific person or event. People have commented on how I put a face on this awful disease and I appreciate that. This post is not meant to keep anyone from making conversation. What I want it to do is make people think before they say something. I’ve said some things I wish I could take back now because I realize just how (okay, chemo brain is setting in and I can’t think of the right word now) they were what I thought I should say rather than what the person needed to hear. This is not an attack, more of a suggestion.

I have been doing a lot of research about cancer, mostly because I’m stuck in the house and if I bake anymore goodies I will probably be the first person in history to actually gain weight while undergoing chemotherapy. I’ve seen how to cope, how to be a good caregiver, how to care for yourself, what to eat, survivor stories and the list goes on. What I’ve not seen in any great detail is what NOT to say to someone with cancer. Yes, there are some things that cancer patients would rather not hear, at least in my opinion. I did run this list past my friends Cathy and Lisa who are both cancer survivors, and they are generally in agreement with me.

1. “You look good.” Okay, this is a compliment and, yes, it’s nice to hear. However, there are many times when we are just putting on our happy face so others don’t feel uncomfortable. And sometimes I feel like people are saying, “You look good – for someone with cancer.” I know I look very different. My eyebrows are very thin, my eyelashes look like they’ve been parted in preparation for braiding. My face is very pale, unless I’ve just completed chemo, then I look perpetually flushed. I bought my wig before the chemo really kicked in, so now the hair color is too dark for my pale face. Sorry folks, I don’t look good. I just don’t look as bad as you thought I would.

2. “You’re so brave.” No, I’m not. I’m scared to death. I have the cancer monster sitting on my shoulder all the time and he chants in my ear “What if it doesn’t work? Your numbers are too high. You won’t see your boys get married.” However, I have two young sons who can’t afford to have a Mom show fear because they are scared enough as it is. My husband is now our sole provider and is often doing the work for two around the house so being scared around him is rarely on option. I hide it from my mom (or at least I did, the cat’s out of the bag now). So while I may crack jokes, find the bright spots in chemo (no shaving my legs for the time being) and smile, inside I am terrified that I am not going to beat the monster. And the monster knows it.

3. “Only ___ treatments until you’re done. Isn’t that great!” Yeah, I have ___ number of times to experience nausea, body aches, headaches, light sensitivity and wonder just how much more neuropathy my hands and feet will have to endure. I don’t focus on how many treatments are left, despite what I say. I focus on how I’m going to get through the next day, or on a bad day, hour.

4. “Spring will be here soon and you’ll be done.” Yes, spring will come with all its new beginnings. Even the cancer monster can’t stop that. As I said previously, I can’t even think past tomorrow. John is trying to plan an anniversary get-away for us in May. He doesn’t understand I can’t think that far ahead. I can’t imagine a life without it revolving around lab tests, doctor visits and chemotherapy because that IS my life right now. I know I should look forward to the future, but I can’t. It’s too hard. What if I don’t get better, then what will spring bring? I go through the motions, but it’s just too hard to think that far ahead.

5. “You’ll beat this and be fine.” This is the one I really hate. Aside from my friends Cathy and Lisa, I immediately tune out anyone else who says it, even my mom and husband. I don’t care that your friend’s cousin, the cashier at the grocery or the person in the other cubicle at work beat ovarian cancer. Statistics don’t lie. Statistically speaking at some point this disease will kill me. Granted it could be 40 years from now, but it probably will. Even my oncologist, who is an excellent doctor and does some cutting edge research, says there are no guarantees. Yes, some of this is the cancer monster talking, but it’s also the reality I face. And I will never “be fine.” I will forever be dogged by ovarian cancer. I will put it on every medical questionnaire I ever answer. My labs will always be done in the Outpatient Cancer Center at the hospital. I will always bear the scar of my Port-a-Cath and hysterectomy. While I may forget for an hour, day or even longer, I will never actually beat it. To beat it means it won’t come back and that may or may not be the case. Cathy and Lisa have every right to tell me this. They face the same future I do. And I value those words coming from them. They get it. My niece Brittany, unfortunately, gets it too. She just completed radiation for thyroid cancer. Unless you’ve had cancer, you don’t get it.

None of this is meant to be mean. I know people mean well and just don’t know what to say so they say these things. And that’s okay. But please remember that is always okay to say, “I don’t know what to say,” because most of the time I don’t know what to say either.

5 thoughts on “What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient

  1. Mom says:

    Shelli, I don’t know what to say either except to say I love you and whatever you need or whatever it takes it is not too much to ask of me.
    People share their stories of survival because they want to let all of us know that there is hope for all of us.
    You are not the only person who is scared here. We all who love you are scared too. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have a positive attitude.
    Love, Mom

    • Mom, I know you love me and are there for me. It’s just extremely difficult to hear these things and, as I’ve said, unless you’ve had cancer it’s tough to understand. Carol might be a better person to ask about this since she’s several years removed from her cancer battle. I WANT you to have a positive attitude, but every so often I NEED a pity party. I just don’t wallow in it (as my friend Lisa said during our chat last night).

      This was not meant to be mean spirited in any way. I am fighting as hard as I can. Liz (my physician’s assistant) tells me this is completely normal at this stage of chemo to just be really pissed at everything and everyone. I’m sick and most people aren’t. John is at his wits end with me right now and I’m sure he’s going to want to punch me when he reads this. I guess what I should have written was instead of telling me I look good, ask how I feel. If I say good, respond by saying “it shows.” If I say lousy say, “You look tired.” Don’t try to sugarcoat things. Survival stories are wonderful and I read a lot of them on ovarian.org.

      Overall, this is MY journey. And people have asked me to share my journey. You gotta take the good with the bad and this is the bad. Sorry if I hurt your feelings. That was never my intent.

      I love you Mommy!

  2. Carol Bakos says:

    Wow, Shelli, you really hit the nail on the head. People don’t know what to say, but they feel like they have to say something – and, of course it needs to be something positive so they resort to the kinds of comments you mention. I hope that when I tell you I love you and am pulling for you to make a full recovery that you will believe it comes from my heart.. Carol

    PS – your blogs are great!

  3. Carol, I know it comes from your heart. You’ve walked in my shoes! I love you too! Thanks so much for taking care of Mom during this time!

  4. Jeanette Davis says:

    Hope just knowing that so many people, even people you don’t know,
    are praying for you, is some help during this difficult time.

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