What NOT to write to cancer patients – please

Having had cancer twice myself, I cringe sometimes at the comments well-meaning people write on social media to a friend or acquaintance who is “battling” cancer. Encouraged by the tabloid media who love to dramatise cancer even more than it deserves, with “gruelling treatments,” “terrifying surgery,” “fighting for their life” and other exaggerated clichés, commenters tend to turn someone’s cancer journey into World War 3.

how not to write to cancer survivors

Much as the media love these terms, we cancer survivors never talk about “cancer-free” or “all-clear.” With cancer, you learn never to think “never.”

Some comments that may not do as much good as you’d like, and why …

“You’re strong – you’ll beat it!” Unfortunately cancer doesn’t discriminate about who it hits – it can occur in the fittest of athletes as easily as it can in someone who is physically weak. And whether or not you beat cancer has more to do with the facts of its aggression, size, spread, etc., along with the treatments available. To suggest to someone that they will “beat it” may make more sensitive types feel it’s up them, and it’s their responsibility to beat it. Needless to say that’s not the case. Instead how about something like: “You’re strong and fit. That should help you get through your treatments more easily. Keep it up!”

“Positive thinking – that’s what you need!” Sadly positive thinking has diddly squat to do with cancer, but it can help people approach the consequences. Once again, if you want to talk about positive thinking, relate that to the treatments rather than the disease itself. Instead how about something like: “You’ve always been a positive person, and that really will help you get through the discomforts of treatment. You’ll probably find your local (type of cancer) support group really helpful, too.”

“You are so brave.” Cancer patients have to be brave whether they like it or not. Often, though, the treatments that require “bravery” aren’t quite as bad as the media would have us believe. In many cases (not all) there are successful treatments to help counteract the effects of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, etc. Instead how about something like: “I know this won’t be a walk in the park, but people who have been there tell me it IS do-able. You’ll crack it!” 

“My auntie had breast cancer and survived it, and you will too.” There are several hundred types of breast cancer, broken down into even more sub-groups. The chances of your auntie’s breast cancer being of the same type and sub-group as that of your friend are infinitesimal. Don’t give people false hope in this way: that’s unfair and unkind, and if they realise the fatuity of what you’ve written won’t do much for your friendship, either. Instead how about something like: “It’s great that breast cancer has become so treatable now. Your treatments may not be easy, but at least there are many treatment options and the numbers are growing.” (And that’s true.)

“We’re all cheering you on!” Great – nice to know, but this is not a half-marathon, iron-man event or road race. This is a journey over which the patient has little control, so the fact that their fans are cheering them on is nice but unhelpful. Instead how about something like: “We’re all here to support you – just DM / PM / text / email me any time you want to chat, rant, or just have a few chuckles.” (Bear in mind some people don’t have a sense of humour about their cancer so avoid humour in your response. However humour for those who do appreciate it is very therapeutic.)

“You’re cancer-free! That’s it forever!” No, it may not be, and it’s unkind to suggest that once they say they are declared “cancer-free” (more likely to be called “in remission”) it’s that they are cancer-free right now – not forever. The hard truth about cancer is that there is no such thing as never again. We survivors learn that eventually. Instead how about something like: “Great that your treatment has worked! Now get out there, recuperate and enjoy life once again.” 

“You’re an inspiration to us all.” Lovely thought from people who have little or no idea about how it feels to be there, doing it, and struggling to shove the T-shirt down over their head. And guess what? It’s not about you! Instead show that you recognise the realities. How about something like: “You’re doing really well. It must be hard at times, though.” 

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Further reading:

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“Have you heard of this new drug for your cancer? It was in the Daily Mail yesterday.” No shit, Sherlock. Most people haven’t heard of this drug and the fact that you flag it up now is likely to upset the person in question, especially if they then go on to find out that their area of the NHS (UK) doesn’t offer such a drug to cancer patients. Instead how about something like: “If you’re interesting in new drugs and drug trials, don’t forget to ask your Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) what trials are available for you at your hospital.”

“Sending positive energy/thoughts/prayers/” Those are all very well for people who believe in such notions. However remember that your friend affected by cancer may not be such a believer – especially if, when considering his/her apparent “unlucky” diagnosis, may not be receptive to anything other than NHS (UK) treatment, their drugs, radiotherapy etc., and maybe a few large glasses of gin and tonic. Unless the recipient is a devotee of a religious or similar faction, think again. Instead how about something like: “Sending all my love and good wishes for your cancer journey – and beyond.”

“Good luck!” Much as it’s tempting to write this to a cancer patient facing treatment, stop and think. Why should they need “good luck?” Is the surgery they are about to undergo that dangerous that they need luck on their side to get through it? I know that to wish someone “good luck” usually is taken in the lighthearted manner it’s intended. But what you may not know is that cancer patients can be very sensitive to the real meanings of such expressions. Instead how about something like: “Hey, all the best for your op tomorrow. See you on the other side!”

“Well done you – and keep fighting! You can do it!” Once again, much as some cancer patients do feel they are fighting a battle, some realise that the disease doesn’t pick fights with potential opponents – it strikes randomly (well, the geneticists are working on that but for now that’s what we’ve got.) By all means encourage cancer patients who say they are in a fight with their cancer, but beware of those who take the view that they were randomly picked. In that case, how about something like: “You’ve got such amazing cancer treatments on your side to help you through this.” 

“Personally I would have gone for more radical surgery.” Personally I would tell this (potentially) well-meaning commenter to eff-off. Someone telling the patient what they should have done is someone who has a serious, potentially narcissistic problem and has no place in a social media post, thread, or whatever. If this person should happen to want to discuss this in a constructive way – perhaps by asking your opinion, you might say something like: “I’m sure you made the right decision – for you. That matters a lot.” 

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” That’s such a lovely thought and it’s one that we all want to share with someone who has a recent cancer diagnosis or that of any other challenging disease, for that matter. But when you’re up against a recent cancer diagnosis / about to start chemo / about to start radiotherapy, this offer of help needs to be qualified if it’s going to be of any use to the cancer patient. If you’re a neighbour, close family member, or other local person it’s a no-brainer: simply qualify your original thought with some concrete ideas like childcare/babysitting, provision of food, household help, dog-sitting/dog-walking, etc. etc.  If you’re not local, though, how about researching (their) local tumour-site-specific support groups, national tumour-site support groups, etc. Those things really CAN help.

“My Dad died from your cancer, but that was 10 years ago and you’re much stronger.” This is typical of something many older people share on social media, but to those of us dealing with cancer now, isn’t very helpful. Not surprisingly cancer patients with whichever cancer disease are a lot more interested in those who are surviving cancer, than they are in people who didn’t, and why. How about saying something like: I’m sure you know a lot about this cancer, but have you seen these websites? You might find them helpful.”

What is your experience of writing to cancer patients?

Please share in the comments.

 

 

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Thoughts

  1. Trudy Van Buskirk says:

    As you know I had a debilitating stroke in 2005 and use a walker (it has a seat so I can sit down whenever – can you? lol) and talk “funny” now (that means have to listen closely when I speak also did you know that it takes 100 muscles in your mouth, throat, cheeks and lips to speak?).

    People often say I’m courageous or brave. Well what choice I have …. LOL!

    I’ve never had cancer so I don’t know what it’s like but I CAN empathize with them. Keep on keeping on and having a sense of humour helps 🙂

    • And what is even more relevant, Trudy, is that increasingly many patients with cancer are moving over from the way cancer has been perceived previously, to how it is perceived now: a “long term condition” (LTC) or a “chronic disease.”
      As more and more of us can benefit from new treatments, the longer that “living WITH cancer” – especially for metatastic patients – becomes a realistic proposition rather than a dream.
      Thank you for showing us how you deal positively with your LTC and for sharing your concern for cancer patients. XX

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