I’m almost five years cancer-free and have survived all kinds of off-hand comments. Everyone wants to say the right thing to a cancer survivor, but sometimes not saying anything would have been better. Some were well-intentioned while others seemed like heat-seeking missiles. When that would happen, I would go to a very dark place. A place filled with fear. A place without hope. A place I called The Hole. Dread and worry would swallow me. Sometimes for days. All because of some stupid remark.
It seems silly and yet there were times when I felt as if a giant C for Cancer appeared on my shirt. Some people avoided the topic altogether. Some avoided me like I was contagious. Others only wanted to talk about it.
Here’s the delio. Most survivors are cancer-free after surgery with or without chemo and/or radiation. We want to keep it that way. It’s funny how people treated me like I still had the horrible disease.
I’m here to make it easy for you next time you to talk with someone either facing the challenge of battling cancer or thriving another day toward that super spectacular five-year mark. Mine is on June 1st!
Everyone is different. Some of these comments may not bother someone else. They sure bothered me!
6 things to avoid saying to someone who has survived cancer.
1. “I had a mom, aunt, sister, uncle, cousin (or all of the above) who died of breast cancer.”
Now granted, I’m almost five years out and can console the person who is probably still reeling from the loss of a loved one. I’ve lost a lot of loved ones in the last two years. It’s a terrible thing. But most first and second-year survivors are still pretty freaked out. We schedule blood tests every six months. We worry A LOT! We don’t want to hear about how fatal cancer is. We know all about that.
Everyone likes to relate in some way. BUT don’t open your entire “cancer file.” I’ll give you some suggestions in a minute.
2. “You know that -blank- causes cancer.”
I’ve been cornered at cocktail parties. Parties where I was having a great time and had finally stopped thinking about cancer for five minutes. Usually, there’s no preamble, just an “Oh, my God. I know what caused your cancer.”
Thing is, I used to beat myself up believing I did this to myself. Being angry doesn’t solve anything. Regret is the fastest and easiest way to waste precious time. MORE TIME IS WHAT ALL SURVIVORS WANT MOST. There’s no way I’ll ever know why I got cancer. I was super healthy, ate organic, and used green cleaning products.
Realize that cancer is not caused by stress. It is caused by a perfect storm of several different factors. AND everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. What one person can tolerate, another might not.
Several years ago, I discovered the link between alcohol and SEVEN different kinds of cancer including breast, so I stopped drinking alcohol. Yes, wine is alcohol and definitely included.
When I bring this up with friends, I always preface it with, “Everyone has their own sensitivity. I stopped drinking alcohol and eating soy or anything else that would raise my estrogen level since that’s what my cancer ate. As soon as I made the change, I stopped worrying.” It’s true. It was so worth it!
3. “I know someone who got cancer right before her five-year check-up.”
Really? How was I not going to be haunted by that? Was it a warning? There are no guarantees. Yeah, I get that. But I don’t know this survivor’s stage or her circumstances. Why freak me out like that?
EVERYONE’S CANCER HAS ITS OWN DNA. I hate to shout, but please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t compare one person’s cancer to another. EVER.
4. “I want to introduce you to my friend who had cancer.”
The last thing I wanted in my first year of surviving was to awkwardly meet someone and make cancer the focus of our first conversation at a party. Again, I can totally handle it now. But it’s extremely personal. Everyone goes through cancer differently and on their own terms if that’s at all possible.
Instead, mention that your friend is at the party. If we are ready to talk about it, we’ll ask to be introduced. Problem solved!
Everyone has their own degrees of openness.
At first, I wanted people to acknowledge my diagnosis, but a minute or two was long enough. A year later, you couldn’t shut me up! Some survivors are extremely private and swear me to secrecy after our discussions. I get that.
The very worst comments hit me in two questions:
5. “How do you know you won’t get breast cancer again?”
“Because I don’t have any boobs,” I said and smiled thinking I had the guy.
6. “Yes, but you could get it somewhere else.”
My heart dropped into the basement of my gut. What a dick. Why would someone say that? I went so far down the hole, it worried me for years.
Now I take it as a challenge.
Yeah, dude, I’ll show you.
Being human can get us into trouble.
When I published my first Boob Report, my stats boomed. They continued to soar as I chronicled my journey.
I told my oncologist about it.
“You know that will change,” he said. “Your views will drop as soon as they realize you’re going to live.” His comment cracks me up every time I think about it.
Why is that? People didn’t really want me to die, did they?
Of course not… I hope.
Why people say what they say:
People love drama.
Like any good thriller, the higher the stakes, the more our muscles tense and our heartbeat quickens. I know. I write them. We love tension and challenge. We want to find out what happens.
Will the hero live or die?
In that first Boob Report, Roadblocks and U-turns, I announced my cancer diagnosis. Being a blogger rocked. I didn’t have to call anyone! Anyway, I equated my shock to Monty Python’s Flying Circus complete with the giant thumb and forefinger. Here I was on stage starring in my own life when that damn hand came from nowhere and flicked me into the cheap seats.
The opposite happened. I drew a lot of attention. I know it was sincere and full of concern. I appreciated it. People prayed for me. My tumor shrunk a little bit before the surgery. Amazing!
What we need to hear:
Rarely did anyone ever say to me, “You’re going to be fine.” How those five words would have restored me.
We don’t want to hear about your dead relatives, or what could have caused our cancer, or that it could come back. We may not want to be relegated to a corner of a room to talk about breast cancer at a cocktail party with someone we’ve never met.
Instead, ask how we’re doing. We totally appreciate that! Then move onto another topic. We’re still part of the living. Maybe we’ve been on vacation. I traveled to several countries in Europe six weeks after my double boobectomies. Maybe we’ve been hard at work on a project. I wrote a couple of books and over six hundred blog posts in five years. Ask about our families, our plans for the future.
GIVE US HOPE.
Give a survivor hope. As they light up the room with their smile, The Hole will magically disappear. Writing that last line gave me shivers.
Are you private or do you like to share in hope of support when life goes south?