A Few Things I Try Not To Say To My Friend Who Has Cancer

There are a lot of things that people say all the time to people who are fighting life-threatening illnesses.

They’re how we express our empathy as fellow humans; how we try to express our solidarity, our support, our “being-there-for-you-ness.”

Most of them are great — but some of them, when I really think about it, seem a little problematic.

Not that I’m judging you if you use them: frankly, in the heat of the moment, we tend to say whatever we can, and it’s really hard to come up with something to say that’s supportive. Worse, a lot of the phrases in question are basically the major elements in our cultural tool-kit of go-to things to say to people when they’re struggling.

Still, I think it might be useful if I write about what I try not to say and why. Of course, feel free to disagree with me (or agree with me, that’s cool, too!) in the comments.

Here we go:

What I Try Not To Say:
I know you’re going to beat this!

Why I Try Not To Say It:
In short, I don’t know that.

A couple years back, a long-time friend of Denis’ was diagnosed with what looked, at first, like a pretty uncomplicated lung cancer. His prognosis was very good. After the usual course of radiation and chemo, he went in for surgery to remove the tumors … and that’s where everything fell apart.

It turned out that his body was riddled with cancerous tumors; tumors that hadn’t shown up on the various imaging studies that had been done up to that point. The tumors in question happened to be of the same density as the organs they had invaded. They were stealth tumors.

Those stealth tumors killed Denis’ friend.

With cancer, as with so many things, nothing is certain — and if I tell someone I know they’re going to beat it, and they discover that, actually, they aren’t, it can leave them feeling like they’re letting me down. They don’t need that.

I never want my friend who has cancer to feel like he’s letting me down. He’s not. He didn’t ask for cancer, and even if he had some kind of habit (like smoking) that amounts to asking for it … well, people do stupid things all the time. That doesn’t mean they deserve cancer. Cancer sucks.

What I Try Not To Say:
Stay strong!

Why I Try Not To Say It:
It’s okay to be weak. Sometimes, it’s even necessary.

I’ve noticed that the hardest thing for people who are seriously ill to do is to just put everything down for a little while and take a breather.

People who are seriously ill often feel like they owe it to everyone around them to hold it together.

I’m not advocating turning into a navel-gazing blubfest — though I’d actually say that it’s fine and healthy to do that at times! — but when you’re battling cancer, or heart disease, or severe major depression, or whatever, you’ve already got a lot on your plate.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself is the sort of thing we perceive as weak.

Sometimes, you need to stop being responsible for a while and literally lie down in bed so your body and/or your mind can do their thing and try to heal as best they can.

Sometimes, it’s even good for the people around you to step up and take over some of the stuff you would normally do. It lets them feel like they’re doing something to help, even though they can’t wave their magic wands and make your cancer go away.

We live in a culture that devalues weakness. What we don’t always realize that it’s when others are weak that we have an opportunity to lift them up — and any good personal trainer can tell you that lifting makes you stronger.

So by lifting others in their times of weakness, we strengthen ourselves: so we should try to be less afraid of others’ weakness … and less afraid of our own. When we let someone lift us up, we’re doing them a favor, too.

What I Try Not To Say:
Everything’s going to be okay!

Why I Try Not To Say It:
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

It could be that everything will turn out fine, and that the experience of living with and/or through cancer becomes a kind of emotional touchstone.

It could be that everything won’t turn out fine. A struggle with cancer, even when cancer loses, can leave scars and tear families apart. A struggle with cancer that ends in death is hard for everyone who loves the person who dies, and while some of those people will come out just fine, others might not. We don’t really understand a lot about the underpinnings of human resilience, yet.

So maybe everything will be okay, and maybe it won’t — and, either way, I want my friend who has cancer to know that I’m going to be there. That I’m not going to judge him or anyone else if everything doesn’t turn out just fine. That I’m going to love him either way as a brother-of-the-road, a fellow fitness fanatic, another human being, and a general all-around funny and awesome guy who was dealt a crappy hand.

I’m sure there are other problematic phrases out there in our cultural lexicon. I can’t seem to think of them right now.

Sometimes, though, when I need to find something to say to someone who’s hurting, I find one of these phrases slipping from my tongue (or my fingertips).

In the end, that’s okay, too: once again, as humans, we make mistakes and we do stupid things.

So, yeah. If you’re that guy from time to time who says stuff like this, don’t be too hard on yourself.

And if you’re that guy who has cancer, don’t be too hard on yourself.

At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

And that, in fact, might be something worth saying to your friend who has cancer.

“We’re here. We’re in this with you. Together.”

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About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Getting along pretty well with bipolar disorder. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2015/05/14, in compassion, health, life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called Bright Sided with several chapters detailing how much she hated all of that empty positivism that was dumped on her while she was fighting breast cancer. OTOH, it seems to be so ingrained in the culture now that if you don’t spray all of that bullshit over anyone with a serious illness there’s a real risk they’ll think you’re being callous or even trying to sabotage their recovery.

    As it happens, my favorite internet troll has been diagnosed with stage II cancer at about the same time I’m due to start a moderately onerous drug regimen that might cure my hepatitis C. The troll and I are from very similar cultural backgrounds so we use the same coping mechanism for that kind of thing. Cynical black humour. You can see the results in the comment section of this post.

    Somehow I doubt that sort of thing would work in America though.

    • Ooh, I rather love Ehrenreich. I think I’m going to have to read that.

      I do think you’re right — the relentless positivism thing is rampant in our culture; so much so that we don’t even realize we’re doing it most of the time.

      Myself, I rather like black, cynical humor as a coping mechanism as well. You’re right, though … in the US, it might go over, as my Dad used to say, like a fart in an aqualung.

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