5 Common Responses When You say ‘I’ve got cancer’

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When I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma nearly seven years ago the aspect of telling people I dreaded most was their reaction to my sad news. I quickly became expert at managing their upset and disappointment.

This is not statistical, but here are the comments which were made to me most often, and my (usually unspoken) reaction to them, in no particular order:

1. ‘Well, if anyone can fight it, you can’. This is based on the unthinking assumption that having cancer is a battle. As I have said before , this is deeply unhelpful, because it makes a link between the character of the person who is ill and their chances of surviving the disease.

No doubt intended as a statement of belief in the ‘strength’ of the person concerned, it nevertheless puts the onus of surviving onto them, whether they like it or not.

I also think it is said more to reassure the speaker than the person who has been diagnosed.

2. ‘If there is anything I can do to help, do let me know.’ This is one of the most common responses I had when I was diagnosed. It is completely understandable (and I know I have used it myself, with friends who have been diagnosed with cancer since I entered remission). We feel so helpless in the face of cancer. We want to feel we can do something to alleviate the suffering we are certain is coming.

The problem with it is that it (again) puts the onus of coming up with an idea of what can be done to help onto the one who has cancer. My favourite responses to my diagnosis were from people who said ‘Let me take the kids for you’, or ‘I could give you a  lift on your treatment days’ or ‘I’ll organise a meals on wheels rota’. Boundaried and specific, they lifted my spirits enormously: not only were they practical, it meant I did not have to come up with imaginative ideas myself.

3. ‘It’s not fair. You’ve never hurt anyone.’ Not only is this not true, it unintentionally makes a connection between the ‘goodness’ of the person who has been diagnosed and how far they ‘deserve’ to get better. Cancer is not fair on anyone. 

4. ‘Do you have any unresolved anger?’ I found it hard not to react with anger to this one. It seems (again) to make an implicit connection between the life that has been led by the patient up to that point, and how far they ‘deserve’ (or not) to ‘overcome’ the disease. There are issues of blame lurking below the surface here. When people need a hip replacement, or get flu, do we ask them the same?

5. ‘I just know you’re going to get better.’ Perhaps my least favourite response of all, and like the comment about fighting above, this is said to reassure the speaker more than the person concerned. It also assumes a knowledge about the outcome, which no one can honestly give, even the doctors.

If you have a friend who has recently been diagnosed with cancer: you can read my best advice here.

1. Acknowledge your sadness and shock by all means, but remember, it is not about you, it’s about them.

2. If you do offer help, be specific. Then follow through on what you offer. 

3. Do use the word cancer around your friend. Euphemisms like ‘being poorly’ are no use.

4. Do not bombard your friend with knowledge you have gleaned from the internet about their cancer. The chances are they know more than you do. If they want to know, they will ask.

5. Take your lead from them. Sometimes they are going to want to talk about their cancer, its treatment, and nothing else. On other occasions they will not mention it, preferring to talk about their kids and what is on telly. There are no set rules of what is on and off limits. It will vary. This is normal.

Love for Now, my journal memoir of cancer, is available now.

Read my blog post : 8 Great books about dying 

11 comments

  1. Stephen Batty

    At first, after reading the 5 common responses and your comments, I thought you were being harsh, but, after reading your alternative suggestions, I think you are correct if not totally right. I’ve survived cancer twice (well, 12 years clear) and I do think it was a battle, I did appreciate every response because some turned away, some crossed the road, and some never showed at all.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Dear Stephen
      Thanks so much for commenting on my post, I really appreciate you taking the time.
      These thoughts are a work in progress for me, partly from my experience of diagnosis and remission, which you share, and partly as I am increasingly asked by friends and friends of friends to comment on ‘what to say’ to people who have been recently diagnosed with cancer.
      I share your wariness, to an extent. Perhaps I am being harsh. But I also think that the half of the world who has not been diagnosed with cancer needs to take into account that for some of us the battle terminology is not helpful.
      I met many people on my ward (and since) for whom the battle was the only thing that kept them going. And I respect that, believe me.
      It just didn’t work for me.
      With thanks and good wishes for your continued health
      Anthony

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  2. Tom Wilson

    Really helpful list – thanks. Much of what you say also applies to those with chronic long term illness or the recently bereaved.

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  5. Karen Dougherty

    This was a wonderful article, and I appreciate your forthrightness and your kindness in putting others’ less-than-helpful comments in the best light. Many similar sentiments can be found in Bonnie Draeger’s book: When Cancer Strikes a Friend: What to Say, What to Do, and How to Help. Our family has found it to be very helpful. We wish you health and happiness.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thanks so much for taking the time to post a response to this; I value your comments very much. The books you mention are new titles to me and I will look out for them. With thanks for your good wishes and wishing you the same
      Anthony

      Like

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