You would think after going through the last two years, I would definitely be the one who knew exactly what to say to someone newly diagnosed with cancer. WRONG! Even the biggest mouth can be at a loss of words upon hearing the life changing diagnosis about a friend or family member. We often come back immediately with “I’m sorry!” or “Everything happens for a reason” or “Be strong”. Or we often say “Keep fighting!” It seems that there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to what to say or what not to say so I find myself just saying, “Well, sh#+ !” That basically sums it all up in two easy words.
Remember the show “What Not to Wear” when they would go in and tear into someone’s wardrobe? Those episodes come back to me with a smile probably because I always thought in the back of my head my high school girls were going to put me on the show one day. I mean they took fashion classes and were in DECA through out high school where I just cozied up in my jeans and comfy sweatshirt! Any way, instead of thinking of what not to wear, I think of what not to say. Too many people become armchair doctors at the first mention of cancer. “Eat this and not that! You know sugar feeds cancer.” “Read this, he was cured just by standing on his head for ten minutes a day”—okay, a little extreme but actually not too far off! “You’ll be fine because my mom had exactly the same thing and she’s fine” or worse “ My grandma had breast cancer but she died” – sorry about your grandma but geez, timing is everything. I had no idea that there were so many types of breast cancer and it was not a one size fits all remedy. And then , what may work for one subtype on one person may completely be rejected by another person’s immune system. And then, what you are “supposed to eat” in cancer world is actually intolerable because of different meds you are on. Talk about doctors earning their money! It’s all a big puzzle and we are ultimately looking for each piece one day at a time. We are “strong” because we have children we want to see grow up and spouses we want to continue to be annoyed with for not putting the seat down! Being “strong”, although I may be seeing this wrong, doesn’t seem like a choice but a new way of life. What to say to someone with cancer can be tricky but the worst thing you can say is nothing at all!
So now what? Here are just a few things that come to mind. Be mindful of not undermining their condition or comparing it to someone else’s because cancer is a sneaky little beast and no two diagnoses are exactly the same. Don’t tell them everything will be okay because you don’t know that. Instead just stress that it is going to be a hard road but you are beside them all the way. Perhaps, instead of “let me know if I can do anything”, tell them you need a day that would be good to come get their laundry or bring them an easy meal. Collect gas cards and gift cards to restaurants from friends, families, and neighbors. Let them know that you pray for them each day and have others praying too…and then actually pray!. Side story—we recently went to a wedding (thank goodness for the vaccine) of one of my best friend’s daughters. I was shocked when -as I met her friends- to hear “oh! This is THE LIZ!” I was truly famous in a small town. They would continue to say “Debbie has us praying for you!”and then they’d take off to the dance floor. My heart swelled! Ok, side story over! Plan a day to pick up your friend to go to the movies or to a Farmer’s market. It is so important to maintain a sense of normalcy but also be open to the “cancer talk” as it pops up. Many of us who are diagnosed try so hard to shelter our loved ones so we keep our fears and hardships of our story tight lipped so as to not make anyone feel uncomfortable. Make it known to them that you are happy to listen any time and you understand it’s not all bells and clean scans. I am so lucky to have such wonderful friends and family around me but it has truly taken two years now to feel that I can let my guard down and just say, “ my meds are kicking my butt, I’ve gotta go home” or “I’m just going to lay low today. I’m having a bit of a down day.” But dag on it, when I feel good and am ready to play, they better be ready!! Haha!
Last spring, I shared an article with http://www.survivingbreastcancer.org about the using the word “fight” to discuss someone in the depths of cancer or shall I say NOT using the word “fight”. I’m not going to say I am fighting and then have someone say I lost my battle with cancer when it’s not a fair fight to begin with! Fighting is what you do in a wrestling match or on a baseball field where you go into it expecting there will be a winner and a loser. Calling someone who died of cancer a loser is inexcusable. I know it’s not the intent but the implication is there with the word “lost”! This actually contradicts my title song for this blog but wow, the rest of the words to that song are so on point and I hear it as I’m rolling and I’m going to keep rolling!
Kate Bowler, my favorite author and podcaster, says it perfectly in her book titled “Everything Happens” with the words “for a reason” crossed out. Diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer four years ago, her honesty is refreshing as she hosts guests who discuss hard topics that hit home with not only those diagnosed with cancer but all who are going through hard times just trying to learn to live a “normal” life. I’m looking forward to reading her new book entitled “No cure for being Human”. Throughout her podcast she touches on the ideas of “what not to say” regularly. I laughed out loud as I was walking when she talked about beautiful (sort of) letters and cards she would get after her diagnosis that would refer to her in the past tense. “You were so funny. You always made me laugh “. Normally we would think nothing of it, but when faced with a terminal illness, it resonates with you.
Funny, I am even a little more careful how I talk now. For instance, I would say, “I’m dying to go to that movie.” Uhhh, let’s rethink that! “I wouldn’t be caught dead with that shirt on”, nope again. Or the ultimate, comments like “it’s not cancer or anything” when someone is complaining of a minor illness. I’m so guilty of saying all of the above! Perspective is everything!
So all in all, I just felt a need to write this post about language and the importance of it. Be cognizant of words you use with someone with cancer but not so much so as to feel alienated from them. Be yourself! Have fun! Tell them what’s going on in your world because believe me, we get tired of what’s going on in ours! Most importantly, just be there to check in here and there. That quick “this reminded me of you today” or “thinking of you” or “said a prayer for you today” goes a lot farther than you may think! And when all else fails remember, there’s always the quick response to the newly diagnosed as simply “well sh&$ !!”
So thankful for all of those checking on me and praying for me and my family—no matter how you say it!!
Hook up with me on Instagram — Mbcoutlier and click here for my article featured on http://www.surviving breast cancer.org