About a month after I started chemo, I stopped by my neighborhood corner store for the first time in a long time. I was totally bald, looking like I had one foot in an early grave, buying gummy bears instead of my usual (wine, obviously).
Corner store guy: I haven’t seen you in awhile…
Me: Yeah, um, I got diagnosed with breast cancer.
Corner store guy: Ohhhh. My buddy’s girlfriend got that.
Corner store guy: Yeah. She died.
LOL. It’s not funny, but…it’s pretty funny. I get it. He was just trying to relate in the best way he knew how. This happened to be by telling a cancer patient that the only person he knew with the same disease didn’t make it out alive. HAHAHA OHMYGOD.
But again, I get it. He was probably thinking, I don’t know what to say. I worried I’m going to say the wrong thing. I want to make sure I’m saying the right thing.
Yeah, it’s pretty fucking weird when your seemingly healthy friend gets diagnosed with the big C. It’s weird for us too, you know. It’s not like I had any idea what I was doing.
But I’m older now and fucking full of chemical wisdom—radioactive, you might even say. My own body tried to kill me, but I’m still here. Take that, body! Fuck. With. Me. I’m down a nipple but still kicking. So here’s a little cheat sheet on how to talk to someone with rapidly dividing cells. You know, a person.
What I’m about to tell you, I say with love. The fierce fucking love of someone who has been there and is not taking any of your shit.
Your first lesson: It’s not about you. It’s about them. It’s totally normal to have feelings about someone’s diagnosis, but process them on your own time. There’s no one right thing to say. We’re all different. Don’t worry so much about getting it right; just try to connect with the person right in front of you. They’re the same person they were before, but with cancer. Same but different. Maybe even better.
Lesson 2: Pay attention to their cues, verbal and non-verbal. If someone is leaning away or repeatedly looking away from you, they probably don’t like what you’re saying. If they politely but firmly change the direction of the conversation, they probably don’t like what you’re saying. This applies to conversations that have nothing to do with cancer too.
Lesson 3: Watch your metaphors. A lot of the ways we talk about cancer are war-related. "Fight this. Beat this. Kill it. You’re a warrior." Some people are into that and some people aren’t. What kind of metaphors does the person with cancer use, if any? Follow their lead. Not because your metaphors are wrong, but because words matter and they get to choose how to describe their own experience. Don’t project your bullshit on them.
Lesson 4: Check your ableism. It’s so pervasive, you probably don’t even know you have it. So what is ableism? It's the beliefs and practices that assume that people who have physical, development, emotional, or psychiatric disabilities are inferior. Your ableism probably isn’t apparent to you, just as mine wasn’t apparent to me. For example, at one point I wrote in a post:
“I have to stop reading the listserv I’m on for breast cancer patients because it’s really fucking hard to see what could go wrong. I feel guilty for being healthy when other people are suffering. I don't even think of myself as sick."
That is so fucked up. Can you see how fucked up that is? I had Stage IIIC cancer—that’s the one right before Stage IV, which is technically incurable—and I couldn’t see myself as a sick person. Because in an ableist paradigm, being sick means being less than someone who is healthy.
Watch this from VICE:
So without further ado, here are a few things not say to someone with cancer. You’ve probably said these things. It’s okay. I have, too. The person on the receiving end probably doesn’t hold it against you. Just do better next time, okay?
Don’t ask why, assign blame, or offer up conspiracy theories. “Does it run in your family?” some will ask. Or “This is because [insert conspiracy theory.] Do you think it’s because you [ate this/drank this/grew up with or without something/your family hates you/fill in the blank.]”
No, it doesn’t run in my family. What does that have to do with anything? I didn’t mind the first 87 times someone asked me, but eventually this question started to get to me. Why? Because when you’re asking that, what you’re really asking is, "could this happen to you?" Yeah, it could. Sorry. Remember lesson number one: Don’t make it about you.
And as much as I love a great conspiracy theory (I don’t), your thoughts on the energetic causes of disease or the poison in the earth or our society do nothing for me. I don’t know why I got cancer. No one knows why. The why is totally fucking irrelevant for me because I’m focused on how to stay alive.
Don’t placate. Examples: "You’re going to beat this. Just stay positive! Everything happens for a reason. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle." You don’t know that. People die from this. It’s real, I’m not a child. When you give a banal platitude, you’re really telling me that I’m not allowed to feel how I feel. I might feel shitty. And why shouldn’t I? Just because you’re uncomfortable with my discomfort doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Don’t make assumptions. "
You don’t even look sick. It’s over, so you’re okay right? My [insert person] had this and she’s fine now
What does it mean to “look sick?” Many illnesses are invisible. And if you’re someone with a chronic illness, it’s never really over.
Don’t give unsolicited advice. "All you have to do is [insert natural remedy.] Have you considered cutting [fill in the blank] from your diet? You should talk to [insert person with cancer.]" No one likes unsolicited advice. How would you like it if I showed up at your house and told you what to eat or how to feel or, well, anything?
And it’s nice you want to introduce me to your uncle who had colon cancer in 1984, but I’m not really sure what that has to do with my cancer. Like, a lot has changed since then. And that’s a different cancer. It’s kind of like assuming your one gay friend will like your other gay friend just because they’re both gay. It doesn’t work like that. Ask this person how you can support them instead.
Don’t use someone with cancer as a measuring stick for how positive your attitude should be. For example, “But I shouldn’t complain. You’re such a good perspective on life.” No one wants you to feel bad for them. This is probably my biggest pet peeve. What you’re really saying is that the other person’s life is so obviously worse than yours, which is pretty ableist. Ableism = bad. At some point, I even got tired of people telling me they were sorry. I’m not sorry.
Don’t make me your magical cancer patient trope. “You’re so brave." I’m not here to remind you of the preciousness of life. That’s your job. Take care of yourself. I don’t want to hear about how life is short. I got my wake up call. Wake yourself up. Pro-tip on giving feedback—I lead workshops on this—give specific behavioral feedback, not general or personality-driven feedback: "I admire how you share your story with candor and humor. It looks like you’re making the most out of a really tough situation."
And absolute worst thing to say? I’ve talked to a lot of cancer patients about this and there was a clear answer. Can I get a drumroll, please?
The worst thing to say is nothing at all. So you can forget most everything I said as long as you say something.
And if you want to be helpful, just tell them that you care about them and tell them how you can support them. Don’t say “Let me know what I can do” because most people don’t like asking for help. Try this instead: “I’m a terrible cook, but I can order you your favorite meal any time.” “My work schedule prevents me from driving you to appointments, but I’d be happy to do a load of laundry for you this weekend.”
This applies to things besides cancer, by the way. I think about some the things my friends have gone through lately—divorce, infertility, loss of a parent, loss of a job. Any number of hard things are going to happen to people you care about, and to you too. A life well-lived is punctuated by loss, no way around it. Some pain never goes away, but I’d like to think that most all of them can soften at least a little over time. So show up in the best way you can.
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