Through years of becoming a more sensitive world, we are all learning how to communicate in a less derogatory manner. This, however, has fallen short when it comes to how we speak to people who have been given a devastating diagnosis. When you have a friend or family member who is or has battled cancer, keep some of these most irritating phrases out of your conversation:
“You look good though.” While a seemingly harmless thing to say, when the patient is going through treatment, they know they look different or ill but certainly not “good,” at least in their eyes. Therefore, this statement can often feel more like an attempt to placate or avoid the obvious, which is not helpful. A better thing to say might be, “It’s good to see you. I can see you are going through a lot right now, and I am sure that is difficult for you.” This lets the listener know you are sincere and not just blowing smoke up their chimney!
“At least you got the good cancer.” To thwart this one in the bud – there is no good or easy cancer. All cancers are devastating and carrying lasting, difficult trauma with them, physically, mentally or both.
“You got this.” Yes, I do have this; I have cancer, thank you for reminding me – runs through my head when I hear this.
“I’m sorry.” This is a toughie and we have all been guilty of this one. It is unwelcome, however, as it is meaningless and an easy catch-all phrase. A child uses, “I’m sorry,” to get out of trouble regardless of its meaning. It is not a true apology and has no place in regard to a diagnosis; it would be like being sorry your neighbor’s house caught fire, unless of course you lit the match.
What then should you say? There is no perfect thing to say to someone with a devastating disease, but honest conversation and true statements are better than fluffy words that are best suited for use as a slogan. It is okay to let the patient know you don’t know what to say. It is okay to let them know you are afraid to offend them or make them feel sad with your words or with your personal fear of what they are going through. And it is okay to just sit with them, cry with them, listen to them and just share space.