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What You Should Remember When Someone Tells You They Have Cancer


No matter how I go about telling people I have cancer — whether I nonchalantly mention it when talking about a doctor’s visit, use a biting remark when someone implies I’m being lazy or boring, or tell someone because I just want or need them to know — there are reactions I wish I could avoid. So, here’s a handy (and slightly bitter) guide!

Don’t assume you know what my condition or treatment is. It doesn’t matter whether your uncle has lung cancer too, you watch a lot of “House M.D,” you’re a nurse, or any other reason you think you might know something about cancer, you definitely don’t know much about my cancer. Even if you know someone with the same general type as me, there are variations within that – small and non-small cell lung cancer, for instance — and even then, every person is different and every person’s health is different.

You also don’t know what treatments I’m having or have had, how long I’ve had this condition, what condition my body is even in, etc. Don’t assume I’m having chemo, don’t assume I’ve had surgery, don’t assume I’m in remission. If I want you to know these details, I’ll tell you. So don’t say something like “Oh you have hair, so you must not have started chemo yet, right?” Maybe my cancer is chemo-resistant, maybe I’m wearing a wig, maybe I’ve opted not to have chemo, maybe it’s not appropriate for my situation, or a myriad of other reasons.

Don’t assume I’m dying. Please, above all, don’t do this. A lot of cancers have a really high survival rate now, and even if they don’t, it’s incredibly insensitive to ask how long I’ve got left or anything along those lines. So please don’t offer condolences, and even be careful saying you’re sorry. Cancer is a big and scary word to offload onto people, and often we end up having to reassure and comfort the people we’re telling, even when we’re telling them because we need support. I understand it can be hard to hear that someone you care about has cancer, but ultimately, you’re not the person with a potentially terminal illness, and while your grief or worries are valid and important, right now isn’t the time to air them.

Don’t suggest treatments to me, of any kind. Unless you’re my doctor, I don’t care what you think will help make my cancer go away. This goes for any chronic illness, actually: if we want suggestions, we’ll ask. It doesn’t matter if your aunt’s dog’s cousin’s great grandfather cured his liver cancer by only eating raw kale, or if your neighbor had proton beam therapy last week and now they’re in remission. Trust me when I say that I’ve done my research, and so have my doctors. We know what treatment paths are available to me, and what’s likely to help.

In a similar vein, please don’t suggest things that you think will make my life easier, unless I ask. Please don’t tell me that you heard herbal tea works wonders for chemo sickness, or that maybe a wheelchair would help me get around. Again, I know my body better than you do, and these things are my call to make, not yours. If I want your opinion, I’ll ask.

Do ask if there’s anything you can do to help or support me, where appropriate. Ask if I need anything, or if there’s anything you can do to make my life easier. Maybe suggest some things – asking if you can help me cook if I’m struggling to be active might be useful, or asking if I’d like company to doctor’s appointments, or help raising money if I need it, and so on.

Do offer to listen if I need to talk about it. But don’t be patronizing about this. Don’t say something like, “Oh that’s so horrible! You know I’m always here when you need to just let it all out” because that assumes that we will. Instead, maybe try something like “If you need an ear, I’m here for you”

Finally, just treat it the way I do. If I’ve casually mentioned it, then please don’t freak out and ask a whole load of questions, stop the entire conversation, and start crying. If I pull you aside at an event to tell you, I probably need someone to know there and then for some reason, so focus on that. If I’m taking time specifically to tell you, then it might be a bigger deal and may be appropriate to ask questions and talk about it.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What was one thing you thought immediately after your diagnosis that you completely changed your mind about? Find out how to email us a story submission here.