What to Say (and Not Say) to Someone With Cancer

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 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 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 with 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’s 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 who 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’s a car gunning for me full-speed, just no. It’s 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’re 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 ass.

Honestly, when anyone said this to me, I knew 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’re 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 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, 20 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 20 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 25 people in my life who 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. When I went back to work, someone once 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. 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 7.

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,” even though 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.


This post originally appeared on Invasive Duct Tales.

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Why We’ll Never Stop Going Out in Public

I frequently see posts and articles about public outing nightmares with children with autism. I relate to almost every single one of them.

I’ve noticed that most of them aren’t about a meltdown at Disney World; it’s almost always the grocery store or some other mundane outing. An outing you can’t avoid. We all have to buy groceries. We all have to drop our children off at school. We all have to go to medical appointments. The list goes on and on. Lining up childcare every time we have to do one of these things just isn’t realistic and can get expensive. Not only that, but some of our children have such severe separation anxiety that leaving them with someone is equally as traumatic as an outing.

Anytime we go into a store, our son gets highly anxious about the loudspeaker and the beeping at the registers — so much so that he usually throws things when it’s time to check out or covers his ears and cries when they use the loudspeaker. He also gets upset if there’s another child crying (even if that child is three aisles over), and it can send him into a tailspin from which we cannot always recover.

People outside our world might wonder why we ever go out with our children if it isn’t completely necessary. Why do we subject ourselves to the stares and comments that cut so deep? Why don’t we, for instance, leave our son at home with one parent and the other parent can take out the other two? Why don’t I always do my grocery shopping while all three children are at preschool? Why do we attempt the park when we know the end result will probably be dragging a kicking and screaming child to the car?

I know our son would be perfectly content to sit in the living room and play with all of his favorite toys over and over again. His anxiety would be next to nothing, and his overall mood would improve. When we were home sick last week with few outings and next to no transitions, our days were nearly meltdown-free. So why don’t we homeschool, get a sitter for all our necessary outings and stop all our therapies?

First of all, staying shut away is not an option in the real world. If we expect our children to mature and learn coping mechanisms, they need to practice. If we expect them to go to the grocery store and buy food for themselves someday, we cannot avoid noisy places all together. We have to work through the experience, even if it does appear to be disastrous to onlookers. Sometimes our outings might look like disasters but were actually ten times better than the last one, and we bask in the joy of that progress.


Our children (both our neurotypical children and our son on the spectrum) deserve to have fun too. Don’t get me wrong, we plan our outings carefully and generally try to work them so we don’t have much waiting. We try to make it as predictable as possible. But even so, we cannot plan for every circumstance, and if we have to wait a little longer than planned or go a different direction, you might have to witness a meltdown.

But it’s worth it. It’s worth it, to me, to risk him crying and screaming because we’re leaving the zoo after we’ve already walked through it twice, if the benefit means watching him jump up and down with excitement at experiencing a new animal. It’s worth it, to me, to get out of our house and see him have a better store outing than the last time or to see him try a new thing with his siblings by his side and enjoy it.

So there you have it. We cannot live in fear of the next meltdown; our children would never experience the world. We cannot hide our children to make the world feel more comfortable; no one will ever learn about or accept their differences. We cannot stop going out anymore than we can stop living. And we will never stop.

This post originally appeared on From the Bowels of Motherhood.

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Why I Don’t Care If You Love or Hate Jenny McCarthy

rebecca When my son was diagnosed, I knew little about autism. I knew the autism markers — doesn’t answer to his name, doesn’t point, doesn’t babble, loss of skills, poor eye contact. You know the list. I knew those things because he presented 90 percent of them. By the time the diagnosis came, I knew it was probably autism but had no clue what that diagnosis really meant.

I remember the developmental pediatrician saying, “You were right, Mom. He is somewhere on the autism spectrum.” She didn’t look up much, wrote a lot and almost as quickly as the appointment started, it was over. She gave me a results print out, a parent disclosure of all the testing and evaluations, and that was about it. She sucked all the air out of the room, and then poof — she was gone.

I’ll skip over the hyperventilating and crying that happened in the parking garage — me outside the car, him inside, blissfully unaware of my complete devastation. Yes, initially, I was broken over autism. I had no idea what I was going to do with this child. No direction and the worst images in my head. My depression was intense, and I felt so lost. I knew I couldn’t stay there. As a friend said the other night, “I couldn’t unpack in the grief stage.”

Instead, I went to the university. Meaning, I went to Google. I googled a cure for autism. “I have to help him,” I thought, “I have to cure him. I can’t just let him slip away from me. This kid is my heartbeat. He’s everything good, my whole life. I can’t just let this happen.” Of course Jenny McCarthy popped up. Of course she did. While many people in this community hate her, I don’t. I don’t hate anyone. While I don’t agree with everything she supports, says and does, I learned about diet intervention, the beginning of gut health and some other useful things from her. In the beginning, I was glad to find her.

As we moved through the early years of our journey, I researched a lot more. I spent hours reading, deciding, comparing and rethinking. I was extensive in my research, and I implemented interventions I felt would be beneficial for my son. He went gluten-free, casein-free, soy-free and eventually grain-free. We added vitamins, minerals, probiotics and fish oil. Natural things to improve his health. We saw improvements, and if we didn’t — we discontinued the intervention. Fairly quickly, I moved away from the idea of “I have to cure him.” For me, it wasn’t about a cure anymore. It was about health, quality of life, happiness and enjoying the journey.

It was a time of growth, not only for him but for me. I learned to accept a lot — from him, from myself, from this community. The community taught me lessons you can only learn the hard way. In turn, I tried to become a member of the autism community I wanted to meet. Why? Because it’s important, needed, and while we don’t have to agree, we can be a supportive community.

So, when I say gluten-free/casein-free improved my autistic son’s health — I’m not saying it’s for all people with autism. It works for my kid.

When I speak about vaccines, I’m not advocating for or against vaccinations. I’m telling you my personal experience with them.

When I speak about applied behavioral analysis (ABA), it doesn’t mean I’m only about curbing behaviors. It means done intelligently, compassionately and with a full team, I’ve seen it help some children with autism. I respect my son, his feelings, his needs.

So many issues become a battle zone for parents. It doesn’t have to be that way. I can respect you without agreeing with you. Compassion for one another, empathy and support without harsh judgment are some of the most important things we can give to one another. Every journey is different and requires a different approach. While our journey and views may be on opposite ends of the spectrum, we’re still part of this community — the autism community.

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To the Paramedic Who Said the Right Thing When My Son Had a Seizure

In 2010, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Although I’d suffered some complications during pregnancy, I was thrilled when I delivered my beautiful son that autumn evening nearly five years ago. I became a stay-at-home mom shortly after he was born. Our adventures began. I was a typical new mom. I had many of the same fears and insecurities I often hear other moms talk about. I was no different, and somehow that knowledge gave me peace on days when I’d feel overwhelmed or tired.

Although we live in the same city as my mom, I became reclusive with my new baby and found that I began to isolate myself. But I loved the alone time I had with my brand new son. Watching him grow and develop gave me a thrill I’d never experienced. I’d look at him in awe because I couldn’t believe I was his mom. How did I get so lucky? This went on a few months until I realized my son needed to interact more with people and other kids, not just his mom and dad.

When he was a year old, we started joining groups and making weekly visits to my mom’s. One morning on a visit to his “yia-yia,” I noticed he wasn’t feeling well. He had a runny nose. He seemed not himself. After registering a fever, I gave him fever reducer. As I began to pack up his things to go back home and as my mom carried him, I noticed he had an odd look in his eyes. His body grew limp, and he started convulsing in my mother’s arms. I grabbed my son and cradled him, trying to get him to react. We called 911, and I remember instinctively praying the over and over in the loudest voice I could muster as we waited for the ambulance to arrive. I needed God to hear my plea to not take my son.

I don’t know how much time passed; it probably wasn’t very long. The ambulance arrived with three paramedics. By that point, my son had started to come back to me. The older paramedic seemed to have the most experience, and after examining my son, he confidently told me he thought my son had experienced a febrile seizure and he’d most likely experience it again. All this information was new to me. Not only had I just witnessed my son endure a terrifying experience, but I was left feeling so unsure and fearful about what else to expect. I stared at the paramedic as he explained to me how many times he’d seen other babies go through this, and how there’s nothing to be afraid of; he barely finished his words when I began to sob. It was the sort of heartache and pain that releases what seems like every teardrop your body has. I somehow felt like I’d failed my son for allowing the seizure to invade his body.

I remember the paramedic extended his arms to me and gave me a hug as he told me, “You did everything right. Your son is going to be fine. You don’t need to be afraid.”

At that moment, those words were all I needed. My son would go on to experience countless seizures in the course of the next year of his life. When he turned 2, they disappeared just as quickly as they’d come. Now, three years later, my son is healthy and thriving.

I didn’t get that paramedic’s name, but I still remember his words. They come in handy, and I apply them on those days when I don’t feel like a good enough mom.

You did everything right. Your son is going to be fine. You don’t need to be afraid.


For all of February, The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment a stranger — or someone you don’t know very well — showed you or a loved one incredible love. No gesture is too small! If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please  include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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How ‘Pitch Perfect’ Reminded Me of My Journey With Autism

When I was growing up, I dealt with many challenges when it came to motor and sensory issues because of my autism. I also had emotional issues because of my limited speech growing up. That’s why when I was 6, my parents got me involved with a multi-handicapped summer camp to get me interacting with kids. This was when I first had the opportunity to sing.

I remember singing one of the biggest songs of 1994: Elton John’s “The Circle of Life.” I got through about one chorus before I started crying from stage freight. Being in front of an audience full of strangers for the first time was overwhelming, and I felt overloaded.

The thing was, though, no matter how overloaded I felt then, I still loved the music. The next year I came back to camp and was ready to belt my heart out, and that’s exactly what I did. This led my parents to get me involved with theater programs for children with disabilities. I would end up doing drama for the next 12 years; it became part of my therapy.

In college, I began to take another look at how I could tie my love of theater into being an autism advocate. I started consulting for films starring characters with autism, like “Joyful Noise,” starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton in 2012. I felt like this was my big break. Then, later that year, I got to reflect on my journey with autism when the movie “Pitch Perfect” came out.

“Pitch Perfect”  is about a girl named Beca (played by my crush, Anna Kendrick) who comes to college ready to be in her own little world of music and the hope to one day moving to Los Angeles to become a DJ. She’s later convinced into joining an all-girl a capella singing group and facing off in collegiate competitions. To be honest, I had minimal expectations for the movie. However, I was shocked by how much I could relate to Beca. I was drawn to her love of music — but I was also drawn to her because she felt exactly like I had when I started college.

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I wanted to be in my own little world with my music and my activities, and it was hard for me to branch out on my own. My saving grace freshman year, though — like Beca — was joining a group on campus where I could make my first friends. I was an outsider who found my niche later in my story.

While I sat in the movie theater as the credits went by, I couldn’t help but think about how Beca had tried something new and came out of it with a different outlook on life. It really made me think of what my life would have been like if I hadn’t tried theater. Would I be as confident as I am today? Would I be a national speaker?

What “Pitch Perfect” might have reminded me about the most was what Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the leading autism-advocates in the field always says — that you need to stretch these kids in our community. You have to show them what’s out there for them and try to help them reach to the stars. My parents put that mentality into me at a young age with the “three strikes rule.” I would have to try something three times and after that, if I didn’t like it, I could give it up. No questions asked.

I hope for our autism community that we can keep that mentality. The potential is out there for many of us to do great things as we progress as individuals but also as we learn more about autism.

Now let’s look forward to “Pitch Perfect 2” coming out in May!

This blog originally appeared on Kerrymagro.com.

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This Candid Facebook Post Perfectly Explains Why We Need to Talk About Mental Health

I have a friend who’s as wise as he is funny. Ely Henry recently introduced me to a stigma-fighting day called Bell Let’s Talk. On January 28th, each time people used the hashtag #BellLetsTalk to open up about mental health, Bell donated 5 cents toward mental health initiatives in Canada. This amounted to more than $6 million in one day. In the spirit of the day, Ely posted this candid message on Facebook that makes a brilliant point about how we view mental illness:

Alright, it’s #‎BellLetsTalk day. So let’s talk.

I have Dysthymia. It’s basically Diet Depression.

I’ve been treating it for the past year and a half with regular therapy and some medication.

These are steps I wouldn’t have taken if I hadn’t started talking to friends about how I was feeling.

The person I have to thank the most is Torre Catalano. I was complaining to him about… oh, f***, everything probably… and he told me I should consider seeing a therapist. 

When I said I didn’t have the money, he stopped me and asked, “If you had a tooth that was rotting out the side of your skull, would you pay $70 to get it fixed?” I said that, well, obviously I would. He stared at me for a beat and shrugged his shoulders “So…?”

I called a therapist a few days later.

If you are in pain. If you are scared. If you are anxious and you feel like there’s nowhere to go — please, please talk to someone. It’s a tough road to go down but I promise you it will be worth it.

I’m still struggling. I will always be struggling. But when I look at where I am now compared to a year and a half ago? I’m kicking ass. I can’t wait to see where I am in another year and a half.

Much love, everybody. 

Talk talk talk.

(In typical Ely fashion, he followed up his serious Facebook post with a funny compilation of cute dogs.) But the bulk of what Ely posted resonated with more than 100 of his Facebook friends. His message needs to get out even further — to our Mighty readers and beyond. Because a day like #BellLetsTalk day should be more than 24 hours long.

10943523_10152536190951493_399485144_n  Ely Henry is an actor in Los Angeles. You can follow his witty tidbits @ElyHenry.

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