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4 Things Not to Say to Someone With a Digestive Disease

It takes a lot to talk openly about digestive dysfunction. Take it seriously.

You may not be able to understand chronic illness if you have no experience with it and that’s OK. If someone is talking to you about their digestive disease and you’re lost for words, there are some certain things you should, and shouldn’t say. The main thing is to listen, care and provide as much support as you can. Here are my best suggestions of what to avoid:

1. “Have you tried [insert new fad] diet, medication or alternative therapy?”

Before you open with this line, ask yourself whether you have the experience or knowledge to logically be able to recommend something? If you’re not a dietitian, specialized doctor or experienced patient of similar condition, the answer is probably not. I can guarantee you’re not suggesting anything they haven’t heard before, and chances are it doesn’t work. Stop the broken record and only suggest things if you really know what you’re talking about.

Say instead: “What management strategies are you finding effective right now?”

2. “I get an upset stomach if I eat…”

Let me make this very clear: an upset stomach is not chronic illness. Food intolerance can be really serious, but when most people say this they are either referring to a mild reaction to certain food, or a diagnosed and managed intolerance. A chronic digestive disease, like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or an undiagnosed dysfunction is not an upset stomach. It’s a long term, serious and often debilitating digestive disease that affects the body far beyond just the stomach. It’s an upset stomach almost every day, plus an array of other debilitating symptoms like pain, exhaustion, weight loss and anxiety and depression. It’s human nature to try and find a relatable experience to understand and empathize a persons suffering. It comes from a good place, but there are so many better things you could say.

Say instead: “I’m interested in how you learn to identify your trigger foods, do you want to talk about it?”

3. “I had a stomach bug and thought of you.”

There are about 1,000 things I would rather you see and associate with me, than diarrhea and nausea. Similar to my previous point, one stomach bug is not really relatable to a chronic condition. Lots of my friends say this phrase to me and often add “I don’t know how you do this every day” or “I couldn’t handle what you must go through having this every day,” and the thing is I don’t know how I manage it some days. You don’t have a choice in having a chronic condition, in the same way you didn’t have a choice in catching a stomach bug. It’s how you handle it that makes all the difference. Let’s talk about that instead.

Say instead: “I really admire how your ability to manage a confronting condition every single day. How can I help support you when it’s hard to manage?”

4. “At least you don’t have cancer.”

This phrase really breaks my heart. I understand most people say this to try and ‘stay positive’ and appreciative for what you have. This is the last thing this phrase does. It does not encourage positive thinking. It encourages guilt, that the person suffering shouldn’t be suffering because they don’t have a potentially terminal disease. They should not for a second be encouraged to feel their suffering isn’t real. It is not healthy to compare diseases. Cancer and digestive conditions are completely different diseases and both can be hugely devastating in completely different ways. No good can come from comparing them.

Say instead: Nothing. Steer completely clear of disease comparisons.

Getty photo by Antonio Guillem