What to say to someone with cancer

Before we launched the podcast, we sent the beta version out to our Advisory Panel. We included “Dumb Things People Say,” and I had my sister tell me later she had been worried that she would be discussed for all of the dumb things she's said to me. This is the sister who flew out the day I got diagnosed, the sister who sat with me through the trauma and horror of those first days, the sister who slept in my bed and rubbed my back while I cried… this sister had worried she said dumb things. “We all say dumb things,” she explained, “and I know I’ve said dumb things to you about cancer.”  I couldn't even come up with one thing she had said that I could twist into being a "dumb thing."

Then I had my cancer social worker listen to the podcast, wherein she sent me an apology email taking responsibility for something she hadn’t even done! She invented a memory where she said something dumb, and I was upset about it.  None of this was true, at all.

So, here’s the thing. My sister is right. We all say dumb things. I still say dumb things to cancer patients and I am one of them. Us. It’s because a) there is nothing you can say to make it better and b) you don’t know what to say because c) none of us have done this before. PEOPLE WILL SAY DUMB THINGS TO YOU. It is inevitable. Some of them will say dumb things because they are trying to connect and don’t know how. Some people will say dumb things because they are too wrapped up in their own shit that they can’t even see anything else, much less help you. And some tiny percentage of people will say dumb things because they are terrible people and shouldn’t be allowed to converse until they understand empathy. (But this “terrible people” group is really very tiny.)  

What to do as a patient

  • Have phrases you can say to end the conversation:
    • "I can't talk about that right now."
    • “I’ll think about that.”
    • “That’s an interesting opinion, but I prefer to do it this way.”
    • “I’m actually not looking for advice right now”
    • “I’m not going to do that.”
  • Weaponnized crying
  • Double down on whatever silly thing they say: "You are right. I am going through chemo but I'm sure I can't imagine how much your broken arm hurts."
  • Help people say fewer dumb things to you by coaching them (if you are able)

Be gracious. If you can’t be gracious, use it as a teaching moment. If you can’t be gracious nor their teacher, be entertained by it. Seriously, keep a book. It’s pretty hilarious. And it will help YOU next time you are the not-patient. 

What to do as a caregiver/friend

Tell someone you don’t know what to say, or you’re sure you’ll say the wrong thing. Tell them you just want to make it better but you can’t, so you are just trying to help. If you can’t be this open, be extra conscious of what you say. If you can't censor your words, be silent. And if you cannot be silent, maybe send a card instead of visiting.