It’s a natural human reaction to want to show that you understand an issue and thus create commonality and an empathic connection with others. However, this can take on a really annoying form when it comes to cancer.
Very well intentioned people often regale cancer sufferers with tales of people they know, but you’ve never met, who’ve died of a totally different cancer to yours. Or they may have survived a totally different cancer or from a totally different stage of your cancer.
These stories start with: oh my grandma/sister/neighbour/colleague/daughter once had cancer and died/survived. I was personally forced to listen to the story of a friend’s relative who died from ovarian cancer 20 years ago, after four years of fighting it and a lot of suffering for herself and her family.
The trouble is for whose benefit was that story told? It certainly didn’t help me. How does the story of a lady with ovarian cancer from 20 years ago relate to me a colon cancer patient today? Why are you telling me about someone who died when I want to focus on getting through the op and surviving?
You’re not only making me uncomfortable but you’re giving me the burden of having to explain the differences between the two, or to patiently listen to you while you tell me things that aren’t relevant or helpful. This undermines and invalidates my own experience and is really frustrating.
I’m not a hypocrite. I cringe to think that I’ve probably done the same thing myself. Now that I’m sitting on the other side of the fence what I’d advise you to do is to stop before you open your mouth and think! Ask yourself how does what you say help the person in front of you. Don’t mention that you know someone who once died of cancer. (I’m trying to survive not die.) Don’t tell me about someone with a different type or stage of cancer. Don’t tell me about something that happened more than 5 years ago, because treatments have come on massively since then.
Instead, listen to what the cancer person is telling you. Listen to their experience and focus on them. ‘How do you feel about that?’ rather than ‘my mum found that…’ (I am not your mum!) People experience cancer differently and each case is unique. Use your experience by all means but translate from ‘my mum used to find sucking an ice lolly helped’ to ‘would you like me to get you an ice lolly – it might help. Do you fancy one?’ By shifting your language towards the patient and asking rather than telling, you can be more supportive, which I know is what you want to be.
Don’t be dismissive of what the person is telling you. Don’t tell them they’re being negative when what they’re trying to do is sort through their fears or options. Telling them it’s going to be ok (it might not be) or that they should be positive (when they don’t feel positive) or that people get through this (but they might not) is not really helping them. It might be wearisome or painful for them; it might make them feel like a failure; it certainly makes them feel that you’re not listening.
Also avoid language like ‘fighting’ cancer and ‘battling’ cancer. This makes people feel like a failure if they’re ‘losing the battle’. Or they may not identify with the martial language. To me cancer felt like a submission, not a fight, which involved allowing a stranger (my surgeon) to cut open my body and remove half my colon. It might have been his fight, but all I did was keep putting up with things. The scar I was left with wasn’t a battle scar (a symbol of bravery), it was a constant reminder of how something went wrong inside me (my body betrayed me). I was ashamed of it, not proud, and it took time and effort to come to terms with. I wasn’t brave either – you’re not automatically brave because you have cancer – in fact, I was terrified.
It’s really important to keep what you say focused on the cancer person. ‘How do you feel? What do you want to do? etc’ Having cancer means losing control of your bodily integrity – you have to do as you’re told by doctors and nurses. The last thing we need is you taking away our last pieces of control. Ask us, don’t tell us. Listen to us. Put our needs first for once. Thank you.