Don’t Let The Conversation Go Tits Up…
So in my humble bumble opinion people generally want to say the ‘right’ thing when they’re told that you have cancer. I like to think there are very few Dick Darstedly characters out there who are genuinely rubbing their clammy hands waiting for the next bit of cancer news to be presented to them so they can rip you to emotional shreds.
I can well understand the enormity from their point of view. They haven’t had any prior warning – no mammogram/biopsy type preparation that this message might be swinging their way. Sometimes the news is dropped on them and their brain has to go from what they’re going to have for lunch that day (my usual train of thought) to ‘oh heck what you’ve got cancer???’ Then in an instant they have to (and likely want to) say the right thing. A true on-the-spot emotional agility test. Quite harsh really.
This experience has been a real eye opener for me. From my point of view i’d been carrying around my cancer intel for a while so my head had moved on from that initial jaw drop shock. I’d learnt quite quickly that for some unsuspecting customers my news would garner an array of supportive/hurtful/outrageous responses. My first white knuckle ride was when I told a member of staff at my children’s school. It was the day before my mastectomy and i’d only had the diagnosis a week. This person burst into tears on me and said that her ‘sister-in-law had died 6 months ago of breast cancer leaving behind two young children who were understandably devastated’. I just didn’t know how to respond? Hug her? Bite her? Blurry eyed I left the room with what felt like death rubber-stamped on my back and picked up my kids who were helpfully karate fighting in reception. As i turned the corner Archie performed a vertical kick which narrowly missed the target (Belle’s cheek) but resulted in a lost shoe. #winning.
Now my cat could tell you that was probably the most inappropriate thing to say to a new member of the cancer club. Clearly unintentional and obviously a recent raw emotion on her part. However, know your audience lady.
Sometimes even the more innocent responses can come across as offensive. I was asked by a friend if I thought it could be down to the amount of red meat I ate and another suggested that I should’ve added more turmeric into my diet – neither accurate nor advantageous. Yet on the other end of the spectrum I had friends just say ‘ok, what can we do to support you’ or ‘i’m thinking of you’ which numbed my turmeric-neglect guilt and made me feel comforted.
I realised that there was something in this and thought I could share the love on what’s a ‘Good Cancer Response’ and which phrases you might want to keep for a rainy day…when you’re on your own…and you’ve lost your voice. Just a thought. Everyone’s personalities are different of course so I didn’t want you to just take my titty gritty word for it SO I asked 100 women* going through breast cancer treatment if they could share their stories. This is what I’ve summarised. I hope you find it helpful but I equally hope you don’t find the need to use it. Obvs.
TOP 6 THINGS NOT TO SAY
- IT’LL BE ALRIGHT – They might not be feeling so positive and it feels like it’s being trivialised.
- MY FRIEND HAD CANCER – It’s meant well but every diagnoses is different and it’s not often felt that it’s comforting. Only offer stories if asked.
- YOU’RE SO POSITIVE/BRAVE – It’s generally felt that this pressurises them into always feeling positive when in reality they’re likely to have up and down days. Try acknowledging that by saying ‘You seem so positive today, it’s ok to have down days as well’.
- HEAD TILT – Keep your cranium upright at all times. The tilt is irritating and unnerving.
- HOW LONG HAVE YOU GOT? – Dear Dick Dastardly, Just don’t.
- YOUR HAIR WILL GROW BACK – Unless invited to comment don’t go near the hair. It’s uber sensitive to most women. Empathy is better than encouragement in the early days. If they bring it up then you could ask what the Dr has said and just listen. Listening is sooo good.
TOP 6 THINGS TO SAY
- HOW CAN I HELP – Make sure you actually follow through with actions – deliver food / run errands / help childcare / visit for a cuppa
- WE ARE THINKING OF YOU – or say it in a card or text. The little things mean a lot. Trust me. Good to put that you don’t expect a reply.
- EVERYONE SAYS TO STAY POSITIVE BUT KNOW IT’S OK TO FEEL SH*T, ANGRY, SAD – This can be very reassuring as a lot of emotions are flying about and makes you feel like you’re being understood.
- SHALL WE GO FOR A CUPPA? – Lots of people who responded said that so many people seemed to runaway and hide thinking that you’ve got lots of help elsewhere. Never assume. You might be the only person to say that to them today.
- IT’LL BE HARD BUT YOU WILL WIN THIS – sufferers felt that this was accepting of the tough road but positive at the same time. Obviously don’t just say this and jog on. Do back it up with step 1 or 5 or all if you’re feeling particularly kind.
- LISTEN – Sometimes listening is more helpful than talking. If they seem willing to talk then ask what the treatment plan is and don’t look horrified (lots of people said how upsetting that was).
THINGS YOU CAN DO TO HELP
- COOK – I cannot tell you how valuable this has been so far for me. Throughout treatment it’s been very difficult to plan nutritious food. Having a traybake of something (that can be frozen if needed) brought round has been a godsend.
- LIFTS – Offer lifts to appointments. There are so many scans/treatments and many people commented that finding transport was tricky. Plus they were afraid to ask.
- SUPPORT NETWORK – Arrange a support network for your friend – a whatsapp or email group with the closest people where you arrange/plan support throughout the whole journey. There’s always more support at the beginning but the novelty can wear off (lots of complaints about this).
- CHILDCARE – If they have young children then organising school runs / playdates is an incredible help
- HOUSEWORK – They may need a hand with shopping / laundry / cleaning /watering plants. It’s the small everyday things which can be impossible some days.
To give you an even wider picture i’ve included some of the other responses below but have changed their names so that their friends will still speak to them and their colleagues won’t squirm in the staff room:
My friend said I must have done something to make this happen and said ‘it’s probably something you’re eating’. It made me feel like it was my fault. Lyn (47)
A woman in my work kept rubbing my arm, then tilting her head and would say ” how r u?” And kept rubbing me. Told her i’m not a magic lamp. Angela (54)
My boss said ‘Oh my mum had that. She’s dead.’ Jennie (48)
My emergency dentist said ‘and you’re still alive! chemo killed my sister in law’ I laughed as I wanted her on-side to treat my toothache Kathryn (52)
My sister (who works in Morrisons) told me ‘we’ve lost 3 on tills to breast cancer’ Wtf Michelle (45)
My work colleague said to me just think you can get a free Boob Job!! Liz
I had “my friend’s cancer has come back, she’s riddled with it I mean everywhere, I expect you don’t want to know this, but it’s everywhere!”. Also, my mum kept saying, “I’m in bits over this I can’t stop crying I’ve had to have people come round just to be with me as I’ve been so upset!” Yeah me too mother! She’s the biggest hypochondriac. Emily (49)
I don’t remember any hurtful comments but what did hurt was some people avoiding me when they found out. They would scuttle past me, head down in shops, some even crossed the road to avoid me!! Just smile & say hello, I’m still me xx Annie (63)
My (then) sister in law asked me if I planned on photographing my breasts before the bilateral mastectomy so I would have a record of when I looked ‘normal’. Guess what my response was: A) f*** off or B) f*** off June (55)
An ex friend told me to make sure he doesn’t see me without my wig on as he would be upset………I told him I have to look at him bald every time I look at him Winifred
When I told my mother I was terminal but chemo would help she said why bother you’re going to die anyway what a waste of time and money Sally (51)
‘I’ve heard that cancer pain is unbearable and the worst pain ever.. when my dad died he was screaming with the pain’ – a ‘friend’ told me when i gave her my news… Juliet (43)
My mum said I’d rather you have breast cancer than Alzheimer’s! I’m only 47!!! June (47)
Someone said to me ’will your mortgage be paid off, it almost worth being ill for’ I didn’t say a word Molly (45)
My brother said that my cancer couldn’t be that bad as I didn’t have chemotherapy……… Ignorance can be hurtful…… He still doesn’t know any better Karen (59)
o and aren’t you lucky you get a boob job and a tummy tuck all free! well I didn’t because now I have secondary brain cancer too Cathie (58)
SO many people would feel the need to point out every person they know who has or had cancer. It’s not helpful. Isobel
I had ”oh that’s the best cancer to have! people always get over it .. if I was going to have cancer that’s the one I’d have” !!!! Lindy (51)
Where do I start? Here’s a list of unhelpful comments:
‘Well they’ve cut it out now and said you’re cancer free, so you should be happy right?’ (friend)
‘It’s only hair, it’ll grow back..’ (my brother)
‘Well at least they caught it early….’ (friend)
‘Yeah, my hair fell out and my nails all turned black and fell off’ (a breast cancer survivor said as I was waiting for my operation)…
‘It won’t be long until it’s all over and you can be normal again…..’ (work friend)
‘Bet you’re getting loads of stuff done at home whilst you’re off work?….. ‘ (my neighbour)