by JO HILDER
In July 2003 at the age of 35, I was diagnosed with aggressive Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. The tumour in my chest was as big as a saucer by the time it was found, and six months of treatment followed. Lots of things began around that time – a military-like operation by friends and family to ensure we didn’t starve was one. I’m still grateful for the wonderful support we received at that time.
What also began was an avalanche of messages and good wishes. It seemed everybody had something helpful to say. Some of those things were very encouraging – others were not so much. I began to recognize there are some pretty generic things we say to a person with cancer, almost like there’s a list posted somewhere. The most common cancer clichés include -
1. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” We know adversity breeds resilience, however, what doesn’t kill us can still frighten us witless. A cancer diagnosis is accompanied by intense emotions and circumstances. Being told if you don’t die at least you’ll end up with more highly evolved character is not particularly comforting. Receiving a chemotherapy that will cure cancer is.
2. “My friend/cousin/uncle/neighbour had that, and they died.” A clear example of how the truth doesn’t always set us free.
3. “Just pray, and God will heal you.” Sometimes people pray and cancer goes away, and sometimes nobody prays and cancer goes away. If you’re the praying type, instead of the above tell them sincerely “I’ll pray for you”, then go away and do it.
4. “I would love to come and see you.” When people say they want to “see” a person with cancer, what they often mean is “I would like to come around and look at you. I’d like you to see my sad face and my ‘coffin eyes’.” Having cancer does not cancel dignity or a right to privacy.
5. “God/The Universe is trying to teach you something.” People are terrified of saying something trite and meaningless, so instead say something they hope reflects the depth of the situation. God and cancer both make people feel pretty intimidated, and thus frequently end up in the same sentence.
6. “I have a book for you. “ Please don’t give your book, especially if it’s about cancer curing food, juice or vitamins. Offer instead to bring anything they want they can’t get. That way, if they want to read about the Praise Jesus Diet or try some Guatemalan Beetle Juice, they’ll know exactly who to call.
7. “I’ll bring a lasagne.” They’ve probably had as much pasta bake as they can eat. Be creative, think healthy and call first with the offer. And don’t expect them to remember you sent it in your special casserole dish. They’ll be hard pressed thanking you, let alone getting your heirloom back.
8. “Tell me everything.” After having my bodily dysfunctions discussed in detail in front of me like I was seventy kilos of interesting cheese, the last thing I wanted to talk about was cancer. Most people with cancer enjoy an opportunity to discuss more interesting things.
9. “We all have to die from something.” Whilst having radiotherapy, I lived in a hostel with a single dad who knew he caused his own terminal lung cancer. I met a couple who saved all their lives to travel, only to have the husband diagnosed two months after retirement. I knew a woman who died of mouth cancer I’m sure would rather have died of anything else. When you’ve lived amongst the dying, you don’t speak of death so lightly.Since I went into remission, I’ve spent several years working in cancer supportive care trying to understand what happens when someone we love is diagnosed with cancer. One of the first things encountered are those feelings of fear and anxiety, for both the person with cancer and loved ones. This has us clambering in our minds for a way to reduce cancer down and make it feel less threatening. The biggest problem with clichés is they act as a kind of final word. Once they’re said, nobody talks about what they really think or feel, about cancer, or anything else. This is the opposite of what needs to happen when someone has cancer.
What do we say instead? I recommend open questions – questions you don’t already have the answer to, without a basic “yes” or “no” response. Something like, “So, what’s happening for you at the moment?” allows the person to guide the conversation either towards or away from cancer. Open questions put the person with cancer back in control, and provided the support person resists the urge to tie off sentences with clichés, will help them feel heard and validated.
Cancer can be an opportunity for growth in relationships despite all the unpleasantness it brings. It may not “make us into better people”(in fact, the personal transformation part is totally optional) but some simple changes to the ways we communicate can turn cancer into a far less negative experience for everyone involved.
Jo’s new book Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer is available now as an e-book and in print. Copies can be purchased at Jo’s blog by clicking here, or by visiting www.johilder.com
Jo Hilder began volunteering and working in the area of cancer and survivorship with the Cancer Council NSW after surviving blood cancer in 2004. Things Not To Say is her second book, and she is now working on her third – the story of her journey through cancer due – for release early 2013. Married with four children, Jo lives in Newcastle, NSW and blogs here.
Have you had friends or family members who have been seriously ill? Would you add any more cliches to Jo’s list?