It’s in the news: Things not to say to someone with cancer.

The BBC (amongst others) have been busy reporting in the last couple of days on ‘cancer clichés to avoid’. The Twitter world has had their say and I actually feel strongly enough to put my thoughts into this blog post. Before I launch into my thoughts on the things people should or should not say, I would just like to make it clear to those of you who know me, that you can say almost anything to me (within reason!) and I won’t be offended. I would really hate for people to be too scared to talk to me in case they say the wrong thing. I do think political correctness has gone a bit overboard if we are now putting pressure on people to check their phrases before speaking to anyone with cancer. Anyway, here are my thoughts.

First of all, I will highlight some of the phrases which are being hotly disputed.

“You’re such an inspiration.”

“You’re so brave.”

Personally, I am flattered if anyone says either of those to me (and they have!) I don’t necessarily agree that I am brave or inspirational but it really doesn’t bother me if people say it to me – I would take that as a compliment.

“Stay positive.”

I think what some people with cancer are taking issue with is the fact that they want other people to recognise that you can’t be positive all the time. Sometimes you feel downright lousy – and that’s OK. Again, I really don’t mind if people say it to me as I realise they are trying to encourage me to stay strong and believe that I can come out the other end smiling.

Some people will say, “You’ll be fine.”

I can see how this might upset some people as it almost shies away from the seriousness of this horrible disease. The reality is, no one knows that they will be fine. Part of having cancer is the uncertainty. However, I can totally understand why people say it – they are keen to say something positive and they truly want you to be fine as well.

Upon hearing you have cancer, many people will say, “My friend had x type of cancer…” Followed by a run down of the way they coped with treatment and what they are doing now.

There are a few things here – first of all, someone who has had the same type of cancer might have had a completely different experience, partly due to the constant research (thank goodness) resulting in better and more individualised treatment. Secondly, we all react differently so they may have had every side effect going whereas another person may not. Thirdly, how they recover and what they are capable of during or after finishing treatment may be completely different to what another person can cope with. I don’t mind too much if people tell me about other people they know who have had a similar experience to me. In fact, it is sometimes helpful to hear about other people’s experiences. I suppose I just need to point out that I might be completely different and there should be no pressure on me to be like anyone else.

One thing which I do find hard is if people play down the impact of losing one’s hair due to chemotherapy. Macmillan have issued a video clip where a lady describes how insecure she feels as a result of losing her hair. I personally think it is a big thing to go through and this is nothing to do with vanity. Hair is part of one’s identity and the fact that most chemotherapy drugs lead to complete hair loss is tremendously hard to cope with for the majority of people with cancer. I know hair will most likely grow back but in the meantime, the reality is that many people will endure several months or more with no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes and all of this in addition to any scars they have from surgery.

On the other hand, there are some people who say all the right things and I admire the fact that they can do this. It’s like they just know what to say and they seem to have a real sense of understanding of things which might not go down so well. However I have had some people tell me that they really don’t know what to say. I think that’s fine as well and I appreciate their honesty. I know I have struggled in the past knowing what to say to people with cancer and have no doubt said something that has upset them.

The way I look at it is that people who do not have cancer or haven’t had a close family member affected by it aren’t likely to know what it entails in terms of treatment, trauma and the sheer stress it puts on a family. Why would they? If they are not going through it, they are not likely to need to know this level of detail. This can then lead to them saying things which could be upsetting to a person with cancer but I know they are not meant badly in any way. I was exactly the same until my diagnosis – I had no idea, for example, that there are different sorts of breast cancer, or how chemotherapy works. Three months down the line, I am slowly becoming an expert. Even so, there are that many differences between types of cancer, types of treatment and the way it affects individuals, that I could quite frankly still put my foot in it if I was talking to someone else with cancer. I suppose what I am saying is, people generally mean well and just because they do not fully understand what I am going through, does not mean they don’t care or are deliberately trying to upset me.

A final word about the campaigns that are currently out there recommending what you can and can’t say to people with cancer – I sincerely hope they haven’t put people off talking to anyone who has cancer by scaring them into thinking we all get upset at the so called ‘what not to say’ phrases. We are all different, and what upsets one person, may not upset another. Admittedly, there are some things which are clearly insensitive and the links below show some of the things which people have apparently said (not to me, thankfully). You can make up your own mind what you think of some of these. So all of you who know me, please carry on talking to me. I am very open about everything that is happening to me and more than happy to answer questions. As I said at the beginning, I would rather people talk to me than avoid me in case they say ‘the wrong thing’.




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