The Thoughtlessness of the Well-Intentioned

Think before you speak. Think before you act. Life lessons taught at an early age. Once you have an illness that requires your doctors to talk to you about your percentage life expectancy in the next five years, simple gestures and words that I wouldn’t have even noticed before take on new meaning. In the interest of all the other cancer survivors out there, I offer a few that have struck me as particularly thoughtless:

  • “Well, at least they got it all.” Yeah, not so much. Just because I had surgery does not mean that my cancer is gone. In my case, there’s a 40% chance that it’s still in other lymph nodes and it won’t be gone until I finish chemo and radiation. So, when you say this, I am reminded that the cancer is still in my body, and that is not a pleasant reminder.
  • “I am so upset that…[I’m not sleeping, I’m worried all the time, I think about you all the time, I want to help but I don’t know how, etc.]” Note the subject of these sentences — the speaker, not the recipient. Saying this helps me not one bit, and changes this into something where I’m either supposed to feel guilty about making you upset, or just go away so I don’t upset you anymore. Needless to say, not helpful, and a curious way of making my cancer all about you. I don’t need this at all, sorry. When you are ready to leave this sort of bullshit at the door and genuinely ask me how I am, bring it. Otherwise, please stay away.
  • “We’re having some friends over, it will be a great time.” Sounds innocent enough, but I really am not up for meeting strangers and pretending that I don’t have cancer, even for an evening. It’s on my mind 24/7, whether I want it to be or not. Or worse, being forced to talk about it with people I don’t know.
  • “Wishing you a speedy recovery.” Ok, this works if you break your leg, or have the flu. Cancer treatment is not speedy, and recovery is illusive. Again, it reminds the recipient of what they don’t have — something easily treatable, something that you get over quickly, something they won’t be thinking about for the rest of their lives.
  • “Your situation is just like my…[mother’s, sister’s, friend’s, depression, divorce]” It isn’t, and putting me in a box that you can relate to simply negates my experience, and our conversation may be a short one and one not to be repeated. Telling me that your sister had a different cancer and did great (but you don’t know which kind or her treatment) isn’t helpful at all. It will just shut me up. Cancer, especially breast cancer, is very specific and it is very personal. If you have personally been down this specific road before, I definitely want to hear about your experience, and I will have lots of detailed questions that allow me to figure out whether our experiences connect and whether we have something in common. Or if you know another survivor and want to put us in touch, that’s really helpful. Otherwise, if you really want to show your support, let’s leave the indirect or unrelated experience to the side, and just ask me how I’m doing.
  • “I hope it’s nothing serious.” This was said in reaction to my announcement of my medical leave at work. Yeah, I wish it wasn’t serious either, but it is, thanks for reminding me. Something along the lines of “take care” or “wishing you well” would have done the trick.

What has helped tremendously are friends and family who call or email or text to say “how are you doing today?” or “need anything?” or “how are you holding up?” Keeps me in the moment, which is all I have right now and does not presume anything or remind me of what I don’t have right now.

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