One of my best friend‘s dad died just before Christmas.  She called, and I met her at the hospital almost instantly.  It was the same emergency room that I went to to say goodbye to my mom.  Not only had I been in her shoes, but I grew up with this family.  They ARE family.  The thing is — I still didn’t know what to say.  I know, from experience, that they will likely not remember what I did or didn’t say, but that night, in raw shock and grief, my friend looked to me for some guidance.  “What do I do now?” she asked.

At their house, at the funeral, over the phone, and even now, I struggled to find the words.  I settled with a hug and different variations of “I’m so sorry” and “I love you” knowing that there are no right words.

When I was diagnosed with cancer in April, I saw this same struggle come over people.  They didn’t know what to say to me.  And every hurdle I faced, there was a new crop of solemnity in the eyes of those surrounding me.  People just didn’t know what to say.

Truthfully, there is almost nothing worse than silence, but in the case that someone said “the wrong thing,” it never really bothered me.  I’m not easily offended, and I realize the difficulty of the situation.  I understand that saying anything at all is akin to saying, “Hey, I care,” so I honestly appreciated everything anyone said to me.  You guys really pulled me through with love and grace.

With a few exceptions.

There are really some things you just SHOULDN’T say to someone with cancer, and I’m here to help.  (If you said any of these things to me, don’t worry, we’re cool.  Just, you know, maybe hold it back next time you’re trying to think of something to say in the face of something as awful as cancer.)  It’s a short list (only two things), but here we go.

“But you could get hit by a car tomorrow.”

No.  Just no.  My husband actually said this to me the other day when I was talking about my fear of dying from this horrible, awful disease (which spawned this whole post!), but he’s not the only person that has used this line.

The problem.  It dismisses the fear.  The valid, legitimate fear that cancer does and can kill.

Also, do you see a car trailing behind me?  Because I ACTUALLY have mutinous, killer cancer cells IN MY BODY trying to take me down.  Until there is a car gunning for me full speed, just no.  It is not the same thing.

“My aunt/sister/boss/mom died of breast cancer.”

Oh, how nice.  Let’s talk about how slow and painful it was too.

The only time you should say this to someone is if they are your mortal enemy.  Like, if you hate someone, really hate someone, and they are diagnosed with cancer, then you could probably give them a whole list of people you knew who died of that type of cancer and consider yourself one up.  In that case, however, you are a ginormous asshole.

Honestly, when anyone said this to me, I knew that they were just trying to relate with me.  I knew they were *trying* to say, “Hey, I’ve seen breast cancer, and I understand.  I know it’s tough, I know it’s scary, and I know what you are facing in the days ahead.”

But you really should just hold that little nugget inside unless you want to make my day worse.  Because it always did.  Hearing of someone who died of breast cancer, ESPECIALLY in the early days of diagnosis, was panic inducing.  I can handle it much better now, but let’s be honest, I am now also taking an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds at bedtime.  So bring it on; I’m covered!  Just kidding.  I still don’t like to hear about it.

On the flip side, if you know of someone who was diagnosed with breast cancer and is, like, twenty plus years out, feel free to mention that.  Those stories I welcomed with warm hugs.  But don’t expect me to go too crazy.  In twenty years, I’ll only be 53.

There are also things that people wouldn’t say that I wished someone would have.  Like, “Wow, Heather, you look like shit.  Chemo must be a real bitch.”

Everyone was so quick to say how good I looked, considering, and they usually left off the “considering” part.  Now, I know darn well that I didn’t look good — bags under my eyelash free eyes, a bald head, and a partial grimace on my face — and I didn’t feel good.  I also know that people were just trying to throw me a bone, but if someone would have just conceded that I looked pretty awful, I would have been all like, “I know, right?  Thank you!  I feel pretty awful, and this cancer is really taking me down a notch.”  Validation.

Be careful with this one though.  First, I’m not sure that every cancer patient feels the same way, and second, not just anyone can get away with it.  There are definite rules.

If it looks like I tried at all to throw myself together, wait until next time.  Signs that I tried to put myself together whilst in chemo: a wig, anything other than pajama pants, chapstick.

Also, you must be in the inner circle to say it.  I figure there are about twenty five people in my life that I would have welcomed such a comment from.  Brothers, cousins, best friends.  You should know if you’re in someone’s inner circle.  If you’re not sure, just don’t.  Remember when I went back to work, and someone commented on my weight?  Not cool.  If you aren’t in the inner circle, keep the compliments flowing.  My self esteem has just taken a huge hit.

If my brother/cousin/best friend had walked through the door, dinner in hand and said, “Damn, Heather, you look like hell.  How you feeling?” I would have laughed and loved it because someone has to keep it real.  It gets pretty old hearing how “great” you look bald and how lucky you are not to have a misshapen head when all you want is your long, lovely, feminine hair back.

Keeping it real is what I craved a lot of the time.  Which is why I often enjoyed the company of children.  They don’t always know not to keep it real.  Penny was great at it.  My friend’s son showed no signs of hesitation at commenting on my bald head with a “Why aren’t you wearing your wig?”  My niece, Abbi, is one of the only people who talked with me about the possibility of my death, and she’s seven.

She spent the night at our house mid-chemo, and upon seeing my bald head for the first time, I saw her thoughtful face, and said, “The medicine I take made it fall out, but it will grow back.”

“I know.  My dad told me,” she said and sat for a moment, never looking away from me.  “I know that you could die from cancer.”

“Yes, I could.  I really could… but I don’t think I will.”

“Me neither.”

I can’t tell you how good that exchange was for my soul.  Someone said it.  Someone finally said it.  My doctor never even said it.  She gave me odds, numbers, but NO ONE says things like, “You could die,” but it’s true.  And it’s so good to hear someone else say what you know and everyone else wants to gloss over.

Just don’t say nothing.  Don’t drop out of someone’s life because you don’t know what to say or how to approach them.  Because that is the very worst.  Truly, with the exception of the aforementioned phrases, there are no wrong words.  As long as you approach someone with love, they feel it.  And if you really are at a loss for what to say, just remember not to be afraid of whatever it is that is going on.  No one once reminded me that I had cancer; it never left my mind.  No one made my day worse simply by bringing it up; I always appreciated the support.  If words still fail you, go in for the hug and mean business.

19 comments on “How to talk to someone with cancer.”

  1. You were the only person who kept it real when dad was diagnosed with CHF. I appreciated that because you confirmed everything I had researched and read. I knew it wasn’t going to “be okay.” I knew it was a death sentence. Everyone would say, “Oh your Dad looks so good” or ask me “How’s your Dad doing?” I could never say what I was honestly thinking, which would include: “Yeah, he looks great for a man who has had everything he loves taken away from him.” Or, “He’s really doing great withering away in his house waiting for a life saving call.” Now, I have to walk back into work on Monday and go through the motions of more people that don’t know what to say to me.

    • Ugh. Good luck with work. You guys have been on my mind and in my prayers constantly. Pretty soon no one will acknowledge it anymore, and you won’t understand how the whole world didn’t stop/isn’t still grieving.

  2. Very nice! I was there at the funeral and yes struggled with what to say just as I struggled writing the card to my aunt last month as they removed one of her breasts as she struggles with breast cancer right now as well. Nothing ever feels like the ‘right’ thing to say, but I know saying anything is just another way of saying “I love you” and “I am your support”. In fact, those might just be the perfect words to say after all.

  3. Heather, your husband was a dear friend in school. Your brother and I were in the same grade. I love your blog. It makes me laugh and cry in the same moments. I always end with a prayer to you and your family. Your spirt is strong! May 2015 be a year of health and happiness.

    • Thank you so much for reading along with me! And thanks for the prayers…I appreciate those the most. 🙂

  4. Thanks for addressing it. I forgive it, I just don’t “get it”.
    I go to bed every night and wake up every day with this disease and while I don’t expect them to know how I feel, don’t dismiss my very real situation with your make believe one.

  5. Oh man. This resonates. When my grandmother was sick with the cancer that eventually took her life (not breast…no worries 😉 ), I was 19. And stupid. And a bit naive. And I made this BIG DEAL while she was STILL IN THE HOSPITAL AFTER HER INITIAL SURGERY about how much weight she was going to lose from them taking out the tumors and ohmygravy I now look back and just want to slap my dumb mouth and make me shut up. I’m sure it was overwhelming and terrifying and I also KNOW that she gave me a lot of grace by laughing and being sweet about it because she knew I was completely clueless. But if I could go back and infuse my silly self with some of my 37 year old knowingness I would sit and have a conversation about how scared I was for her and how much I loved her and how I would hold her hand through it all. And we DID have those conversations eventually and I DID hold her hand until the moment she died. But good grief. I can’t believe I said that! MULTIPLE TIMES!

    • Haha. I don’t think we should be held accountable for anything we say at 19 anyway. I’m sure your grandmother was just happy that you were there!

  6. Heather,
    I just found your blog after getting a request to vote for you on fb (hope you win, btw!) Very happy to have found it! I am on this path along with you, but just a little further behind as I was diagnosed in November and have surgery set later this month. Much of what you have shared is exactly how I have felt, especially as I also have 2 little girls who are a bit older than yours. Your writing is great and very entertaining (purposefully!). So, in hoping to reach others and provide some guidance/moments of levity along the way, I wanted to tell you: mission accomplished! Thank you so much!

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write and tell me that! These really are my most favorite comments — comments from other women going through something similar. Good luck to you, and surgery should be fine. I did mine first but found it much easier than chemo.

  7. Heather, I love your openness & sense of humor through your recovery. I wish you well. I have personally supported a friend through her treatment & recovery & she is a 20+ year survivor of breast cancer. It is so true that words are hard to find but being there with loving support is always helpful.

  8. Heather I use to babysit your aunt when she was little, your grandpa gene and my dad were good friends, and I went to school with your mother. I have a friend who just found out she is going through the same thing and I wasn’t sure what to say to her. But after reading this it gives me some idea of what to say and not say.

  9. Dear Heather,
    I spent yesterday evening with you in spirit as I read your blog and woke up this morning to finish December and January posts. I was diagnosed at the end of August. I absolutely loved reading about Abbi’s conversation with you. I am a pediatric cardiac icu nurse and have had death and dying conversations with such beautiful,little souls. Many of them didn’t want their mom or dad to know about the conversations because they didn’t want to upset them even though they knew they were dying. This journey has been very eye opening to me and one I never thought I would walk on despite the stats out there. I too was given a 90+% survival figure which I feel grateful for but it doesn’t bring my mind a whole lot of comfort. I just went back to work last Saturday night. My coworkers were great giving me a light assignment but it felt overwhelming to be back. Thankfully, I was only scheduled one shift that week. It feels a bit strange to be transitioning back to work when I still feel so raw inside. Reading your words has brought so much comfort to me. Good luck to you! I hope your blog wins but I do believe you have already won with the number of people you have touched by sharing your writing. You and your family will be in my prayers. I look forward to reading more! Much love -Julie

  10. Hi Heather, I take your advice without doubt. You understand the situation which makes you a great to learn from. Thanks for sharing this information.

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