Oops! Did I Say That? (Or, what not to say to someone with cancer)

I know that sometimes it’s really hard to know what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer (or any other serious condition for that matter). What do you say to someone newly diagnosed with cancer? Do you ask how they’re doing? What the prognosis is? Or, perhaps it’s better to just ignore the fact that they have cancer completely and pretend it doesn’t exist? What if I say the “wrong” thing?

I get that knowing what to say to someone with cancer can be problematic. Believe me – I understand! On the flip side, I’m constantly evaluating every question that comes my way. Do they really want to know the truth about how I’m doing or do they simply want a piece of sugar candy? It’s hard to know and there’s no “right” answer – for either of us.

I get a lot of comments – and a lot of questions. One of the main questions is what should I say – or, what shouldn’t I say? While there’s not necessarily a “right” or “wrong” answer on what to say, if the goal is to provide comfort – and perhaps a little empathy and sympathy – then there as some comments which are best left unsaid. For the most part, people have trusted their instincts and said exactly the right thing at the right time. But, there were a few comments that left me thunderstruck and astonished that someone was able to put their foot so far into their mouth and still continue to speak. So, in the interest of saving lives other than mine (namely, the lives of those still trying to pull their foot out of their mouth), I’m sharing with you the top bloopers – the ‘oops, did I say that?’ comments that would have been better if they’d simply been left unsaid.

5. “Well, just think about Job. He had it worse than you.”
That’s true. Job did have an awful time. He lost his financial security, his children, his home, his health – everything. But, that’s Job’s journey. This is my journey. Who’s to say that my journey isn’t as hard for me as Job’s journey was for him? Comments like this take away from my journey.

4. “You must have really done something to tick God off to have Him give you cancer.”
Please! Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people every day. The fact that you’re well and healthy doesn’t make you more holy or righteous than I am nor does the fact that I have cancer mean that I’m wicked or being punished for some sin somewhere in my past. If bad things only happened to bad people, then I can think of quite a few people who should be riddled with disease. Life doesn’t work that way.

3. “Well, you know, all cancer is caused by obesity. If you weren’t so overweight, you wouldn’t have cancer. You really brought this on yourself by being fat.”
Are you kidding me? Yes, I’m overweight. Yes, some cancers are fed by obesity. But really, do you think telling me that I brought this on myself is going to make me feel better about the situation? Do you really think this is going to help at any level? If you’re brave enough to say this to someone newly diagnosed with cancer, you deserve the long rest in the hospital which is sure to come your way.

2. “Now, my husband, he had the cancer and he died two weeks to the day after he was diagnosed. But, I’m sure that won’t happen to you.”
Ohhh…. This one is a favorite. I can’t count the number of people who’ve shared this type of cancer story with me. I know you mean well but telling me that your brother’s wife’s best friend’s sister-in-law’s second cousin twice removed died two days, two weeks, two months or two years after diagnosis doesn’t really give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. A favorite variation on this theme is to provide me a blow-by-blow description of the final hours of every friend/family member currently on hospice dying of cancer. Favorite variations on this sharing involve telling me stories of others who are dying of my same type of breast cancer.

I guess I’m a weenie. Telling me stories about those who’ve lost, or are losing, their battle with cancer scares the hell out of me and makes it real difficult for me to remain positive and focus on my goal – namely, winning this battle. I know what cancer is. I know I might die. But, I’ve chosen life and I’m fighting for life. I look to my friends and family to be my cheerleaders – my drill sergeant if you will – urging me forward into battle. Imagine if a commanding officer told one of his soldiers that, yes, 9 out of 10 soldiers will die today landing on that beach but, I’m sure you’ll the one exception. Would that speech inspire hope or courage to go forth into battle with vigor? I need my friends and family to inspire me to do battle – and WIN!

1. The number one “oops” comment came just 24 hours after I received my diagnosis. I was still pretty devastated and had been crying all day. Cooking wasn’t an option so I decided to run pick up some chicken as we needed to try and eat something. As I left the house, a neighbor made a beeline for me and the conversation when something like this.

The Neighbor: “Mary, what’s the matter?” (I’d obviously been crying.)
Me: “Well, I just found out I have breast cancer.”
The Neighbor: “Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” (As a matter of fact, I do and while the question was not quite the response I was expecting, I wasn’t offended by the question either. After all, I live in Bible belt, and my neighbor was Baptist, so I kind of expected that someone would pose the question sooner or later.)
Me: “Yes, I do.”
The Neighbor: “I don’t think you understand what I mean.” (Now, wait just a minute! You asked a question, I answered the question and you don’t like my answer?) “If you die right now, do you know where you’ll spend eternity?” (This is an easy answer. I know where I’m going. My ticket was bought and paid for a long time ago by the blood of Jesus. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that today is the best day to depart, or that I have my bags packed for the journey!)

From this point, The Neighbor went on to lecture me and imply that if I were truly “saved” that I’d be thrilled I had cancer, thrilled that I was dying and would soon be present with God. And, off walked The Neighbor.

I’m still hurt by the insensitivity of The Neighbor’s comments. I appreciate the concern for the condition of my soul. But, even Jesus met the needs of the people before He gave His message.

My other neighbor had the best response I could have asked for when she found out I had cancer. She stood in my kitchen and cried.

© 2013. Mary Kyle. All rights reserved.

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