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What I Wish People Would Say When I Talk About Having Cancer

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What is one thing someone said to you post-diagnosis that actually comforted you (as much as it can, of course). Not the “I’m sorries” or “I’m here if you need something,” but what is something specific someone said that hit your soul and why?

Like many other people, I hate telling people I have cancer. Not for the pity looks or for the never-ending questions, but rather because people don’t know what to say. Or they inevitably will say the wrong thing that will just end up making me angry.

I’m the type of person where I feel uncomfortable making others feel uncomfortable, meaning if someone is making me feel awkward, I usually won’t address it. For example, I hear, “You’ll beat this!” a lot as words of reassurance, and I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by correcting them and saying, “No. I won’t. My cancer is incurable.”

There are so many optimistic phrases people want to push out when they find out someone they love has cancer, and I get it. It’s instinctual for a lot of people to try to make it better. But that’s not what I need. I don’t need to hear, “I’m so sorry” or, even worse, toxic positivity. I would stretch it so far as to say, “I’m here for you if you need anything,” doesn’t mean much, because it doesn’t feel right reaching out to people who I know will only pity me (and when you hear it hundreds of times it starts to lose the sentiment I’m sure people mean for it to have).

So, that brings the question of what would I like to hear when I tell people I have cancer.

Firstly, don’t try to fix it. If I’m sad, don’t hit me with positivity. Be realistic. There’s nothing worse than being sad about reality and someone telling you it’s all going to be OK, because how do they know that? Maybe everything is likely to be OK, but at the end of the day, it’s not guaranteed. Instead, just admit that my situation sucks. Sometimes, when I’m experiencing symptoms, there is no positive side. It just sucks.

Which, going along with that, instead of asking the generic question of, “What can I do to help?” offer me something specific.

As an example, I was in the emergency room last night for cancer-related issues. I texted my best friend and told her that I was getting another CT scan to see if anything new was going on. And she didn’t try to make it all better or pressure me to just think positively. Instead, she asked what was going on, was genuinely concerned, and told me — didn’t ask, but told me — “I’m going to stay up with you until you figure this out. No matter what, I’m here. I love you.”

Similarly to that, another thing is when you’re offering to do something specific, make sure you’re meeting your loved one where they’re at. Don’t offer to do something that would make you feel better. Recognize their ability, mood, and limits.

A less dramatic example than being in the emergency room is that I recently found out I’d need another biopsy to see if the cancer was getting worse or spreading. That was a pretty hard blow, so I didn’t pay attention to my phone much in the following days. Texts went unanswered and I just wasn’t in the mood to get sympathy or pity. But when I finally did text back, one friend really pulled through. And this isn’t one of my best friends. She’s not someone I regularly hang out with. But she somehow knew just what to say.

Instead of telling me how it’s probably nothing or saying, “I’m so sorry,” this friend first asked, “Are you OK?” and her follow-up was, “Do you want me to come and sit with you?”

And I know that seems so minimal. Why would that be a big deal? She just asked to come and sit with me — that’s so simple. But that’s all I needed. A lot of the time, I don’t have the energy to go out or be bubbly. When she offered that, it was the first time I felt like someone outside of my husband was willing to meet me where I’m at. This friend and I usually go to the mall or grab a bite from local restaurants, but she realized that I wasn’t in that head-space for that right now. It wasn’t what I needed. And even though I did decline her offer due to not being in the mood to shower, I still greatly appreciated it. It showed me she was thinking about what would make me feel better — not what would make her or the pre-cancer me feel better.

The last example I can think of is hearing with a genuine attitude, “I’m so proud of you.” Which sounds a little silly to me sometimes. What are you proud of? But my husband will expand when he says this and remind me, “You’re doing such hard things and handling it to the best of your ability. You’re trying so hard and I’m so proud of you for that.”

Sometimes that means so much that it makes me tear up, because so often having cancer leaves me feeling helpless. I need to call off of work a lot, I’m always sick with something or another due to being immunocompromised, and a lot of the time, I don’t have the energy to do things that I used to do so easily. So, hearing that the person I love the most in the world is proud of me is beyond reassuring. It means everything to me.

And I get it why people don’t always think to say these things. It’s hard seeing someone you love go through cancer. It’s hard not being able to fix it. But I know no one can fix it for me. No one can take my cancer diagnosis away or make it any better. I just want others to realize that too.

Getty image by Vadim Kay.

Originally published: October 24, 2021
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