3 Things Not to Say to Someone With a New Cancer Diagnosis
When I was 36 years old and 28 weeks pregnant, I received devastating news: I had a rare and aggressive form of cervical cancer, and I had to start chemotherapy immediately.
As you can imagine, this was a lot to take in. In the weeks prior to this diagnosis, I was an energetic mother of a 2-year-old and a professor at the University of San Francisco. My husband and I were excited (and a little terrified) about the prospect of having two boys. I was experiencing some occasional spotting during my pregnancy but my doctor told me this was not unusual. Cancer was the furthest thing from our minds. So when I went to see a new OB/GYN, and she did a cervical exam and found a golf ball size tumor (which she promptly biopsied), I was genuinely unconcerned. She explained it could be a lot of things: a fibroid, a benign cyst. “Nothing to worry about,” she said calmly. I did not worry.
A week later, the diagnosis: malignant, but the specific type of cancer was inconclusive. Additional pathology was done. A week later, the new diagnosis: small cell neuroendocrine carcinoma. For those of you not in the know, that’s a bad card to be dealt. This diagnosis came on a Wednesday. The oncologists wanted me to start chemotherapy the next day despite being (at this point) 30 weeks pregnant. My husband and I turned to our incredible network of friends and family for support.
Perhaps you have been the support system for someone with a cancer diagnosis. In fact, you probably know someone who has cancer right now. You probably have known many people who have had cancer. Unfortunately, you will know more people who get this frightening diagnosis, and I’d like to encourage you to not say, even with the best intentions, some of the things that were said to my husband and me when I got diagnosed:
1. “My (aunt, sister, friend, cousin) had cancer and died.” Unsurprisingly, this one tops the list! When a cancer patient is dealing with a new diagnosis, death is a constant, unforgiving shadow. It looms over most thoughts and interactions, but occasionally, there is a brief respite from thinking about dying. Don’t be the person who reminds the cancer patient, “Oh yeah, this could actually kill me.” People would tell us so frequently about others whom they knew who died from cancer that my husband began stopping people mid-cancer story and asking, “Does this have a happy ending? If not, we’re not ready to hear about it right now.”
2. “My (aunt, sister, sister, friend, cousin) got cancer three times!” When I was newly diagnosed with cancer, my only thoughts were about surviving — just get through this, no matter what it takes. Until someone made a comment to me about surviving cancer multiple times. Until that comment, it honestly had not occurred to me I could go through all of the chemo, radiation and surgeries and then have to do it all over again. Suddenly, instead of just thinking about surviving the immediate crisis, I began imagining future crises, but that isn’t where any of my mental or emotional energy should have been spent.
3. “Don’t be scared.” This is like telling a depressed person to “just be happy!” Unfortunately, it’s not incredibly helpful or realistic. For a newly diagnosed patient, fear becomes a baseline emotion and anxiety becomes a subtext for just about everything. For me, fear and anxiety were like two tag-team wrestlers chasing me around the mat. Sometimes they’d tackle me individually, sometimes they’d hit me together. Either way, they had me in their grips, and I’d carry the emotional bruises they left.
I understand when people hear of a cancer diagnosis, they are at a loss for what to say and often want to make a meaningful connection to the patient. I also understand most people just wanted me to know I wasn’t alone in my experience and that they had some understanding of it. But I would like to encourage you to avoid the grossly negative stories.
In the end, I survived cancer. I endured chemotherapy, radiation and surgery because I had a tremendous support system (even if they didn’t always know what to say). Today, my baby is healthy, and I’m grateful to everyone who simply said, ““I’m so sorry. We are absolutely here for you when you need us.”
Getty image by Caymia