real life

"This year I was diagnosed with cancer, here's what I wish people would stop saying to me."

Earlier this year I was diagnosed with a skin cancer. That is, a skin cancer up. my. bottom.

In other words, ANAL cancer.

I mean, no cancer is sexy, but after saying “anal” six times a day to a series of horrified faces, you start to wish for the relative grace of “breast”.

The diagnosis was confirmed four days before beginning a brand-new shiny role back in Adland. I’d taken six months off to see my only child out of kinder and into the heady world of school, and I was getting ready to jump back into Full Time World.

So, not only was this a terribly-timed diagnosis, it also meant that I had to contend with unemployed boredom as well as the crushing fear of imminent death. I mean, give a girl a break!

I’m pretty sure this boredom was one of the reasons I decided to Instagram my cancer.

Yes, you heard me correctly. I announced my cancer on Insta like some declare themselves engaged, or pregnant. More than a few people actually queried whether I was legit, suggesting maybe this was a really edgy viral marketing campaign for cancer awareness.

(Note to self: working in advertising can do terrible things to your cynic-meter…)

Via my Insta account I made it clear I was looking for Opt-Ins who’d be up for conversation (as I said, “this is a shitshow, not a sideshow”) and then I kicked my overshare switch into hyperdrive. What I wasn’t expecting was how much of a two-way street this channel would end up being. Baring all meant my mates felt safe enough to ask the un-askables.

What to do when someone tells you they have cancer
"I announced my cancer on Insta like some declare themselves engaged, or pregnant." Image supplied.

Questions started pouring in. I began to run little Q&A sessions, helping those who wanted to know what to say, or how much to do, for a friend with The Cancer.

This first question I received was also the one I saw the most, and so I decided to write up a handy little guide of 'What to do when someone tells you they have the cancer'. Snappy headline, right?

Here it is. So if you find yourself in the terribly awkward and supremely crap situation of a loved-one getting cancer, you won’t put your foot into it.

1. Be honest, open and positive.

Try: "Aw MAN. That sucks! I’m really sorry to hear that."

Not: "Oh my god. Oh god. I’m so sorry. Oh, my darling. [starts crying]"


2. Let them guide you.

"Would you like a hug?" rather than leaning in for a big teary squeeze.

"Can I ask questions?" rather than, "Holy Heck! What HAPPENED!?"

3. Don’t be a stranger.

Just because you don’t know what to say doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything. My 91yo Grandma sends me an email every morning with a snap from one of her old photo albums.

Every contact is meaningful, no matter how small.

What to do when someone tells you they have cancer
"Just because you don’t know what to say doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything." Image supplied.

4. Be specific in your offers of help.


"Let me know if there’s anything I can do!" is really hard to respond to.

Try, "Would you rather magazines or soup this week?"

5. Don’t ask, ‘How are you?’

Their internal monologue will be screaming, ‘How am I?! HOW AM I? HOW THE FU-‘ … anyway, you get the idea.

Try, ‘How are you this afternoon?’ or ‘Tell me about your morning!’

6. And finally, most importantly, check your cancer baggage at the door!

We have all had horrific experiences with cancer. Dead relatives, dying friends, hell - traumatic viewings of Step Mom! The important thing is, don’t let this pour out of your face when someone tells you their news. Shut up your memory shop and focus on them, not your past trauma. Because the horror-death-PTSD eyes don’t help. Trust me. The darkest place you go on hearing their news? They’re living there, 24/7.

Instead, take a deep breath and imagine they’ve told you they have a crippling but curable disease. Nowadays, even Stage 4 cancer can be a condition that is managed rather than instantly fatal. Your focus on this fact will be more helpful to them than anything else.

And if all else fails, swear. Swearing helps a lot.

Ella Ward is an Aussie mum, wife, advertising boss lady and now (unfortunately) one of Those Cancer People. She’s currently oversharing on Instagram @_msellabella … come say hi!

Tracy Bevan speaks to Mia Freedman about losing her best friend, Jane McGrath to breast cancer.