BBC - Ouch! (disability) - Opinion - Cancer: what should I say?

Home > Opinion > Cancer: what should I say?

Lisa Lynch

More from Lisa Lynch

Lisa is a journalist and former editor of Real Homes Magazine. In June 2008, aged 28, she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. Lisa's blog, Alright Tit - which you should be warned sometimes contains strong language - documents her experience and treatment, and has become extremely popular in the blogosphere, with Stephen Fry naming her "the web's number one cancer bitch!" on Twitter.

More from Lisa Lynch

Cancer: what should I say?

10th February 2009

In 2008, at the unusually young age of 28, journalist Lisa Lynch was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shortly after, she began writing a very frank blog about her experiences and treatment. In her first article for Ouch, she discusses the variety of reactions she received when she broke the news to friends and family. And answers the question: what should I say to someone who gets diagnosed with cancer?
Lisa Lynch
After my stage three breast cancer diagnosis last June, I took the easy way out of announcing the news by sending a group email to my friends. I'd done the face-to-face stuff with my family and, selfish as it may be, I'd maxed out on difficult emotions and couldn't handle the guilt of watching anyone else cry. I seem to remember that the message went something like this:

"Well, here I am to stuff up your Monday morning. I won't beat about the bush as this is a difficult enough email to send, so here's the thing: I have breast cancer. To save your awkwardness and my having to answer heaps of questions, I'll be keeping a blog about my progress. I'm sorry to land that bombshell in your inbox – I'd love to tell you I'm joking (albeit in exceptionally bad taste) but I'm afraid I can't. Now for God's sake, someone tell an inappropriate joke."
Unsurprisingly, the main response I received was shock: how does a supposedly healthy 28 year-old lass get cancer when there's no family history? There was much distress, anger and lots of help offered. Somewhat disappointingly, there was a definite lack of inappropriate jokes, with only one notable exception: an ex-colleague of mine who replied with the commendable: "That's awful. You've got such magnificent breasts".
Lisa, wearing a headscarf, is partially obscured as she reads one of the many Get Well Soon cards she received
Not everyone can be so quick with a comical answer, of course. Not least when a life threatening disease-shaped bomb lands in your inbox, disguised as a chirpy email from a friend. Having been on both sides of that kind of email, I know finding the right thing to say can be difficult. "Sorry" just doesn't seem to cut it.

Which begs the question: what is the right thing to say? Unfortunately, no one's yet written a Cancer Etiquette Manual to help with this dilemma.
Some reactions are obviously better than others. "Hang in there" is preferable to "My auntie died from that". And while any words are better than none, the answer to what's best to say is, of course, different for everyone.

Some people might want to be ignored. Some may want fawning sympathy - "Poor you, must be awful". Some might prefer outright anger - "I can't ******* believe this is happening to you". Me? Well, I generally go for anything that's either quietly understanding - "Love you, thinking of you, no need to reply". Funny - "It could be worse, you could be a McQueen on Hollyoaks". Or which puts gossip above cancer - "Hey, I heard today that Cher has her bum vacuumed". These pretty much hit the spot, and they are all actual text messages that I've received.

But of course, there's a catch.
Close-up of an instant messaging conversation. The first message says: 'Love you. Thinking of you. No need to reply. xxxxx'. Lisa's reply says: 'Thanks, needed to hear that. x'

The Trouble With Cancer #1

Different rules apply for different times. After the news of my diagnosis had sunk in, there were moments when, I'll admit, I found myself frustrated by some people's words, well-meaning though they were. Like the blanket insistence on urging me to "stay positive" – as though I hadn't considered that option already. And the baffling "I'm sure you won't let it beat you" comments. You're sure? Because, I've got to admit, I'm on the fence.

Trickier still were the messages of 'encouragement' I received when I had one chemo session left. They were easy for people to give, but offered no comfort whatsoever. They just served as a reminder that I had to endure that hell – and hell is a positively flattering way to describe it.
While this experience has reminded me how fortunate I am to have such supportive family and friends, it has also been a surprisingly painful eye-opener of who those friends are. It's a dreadful thing to admit, but you do kind of end up playing favourites with your mates, arranging them into a hierarchy of who has stepped up to the mark and who's simply handed in their resignation. One colleague, for example, completely ignored me when I bumped into him. And it's not as though he didn't recognise me – I might have been wearing a wig, but it's not too far away from my pre-chemo hair. It's not like I'm doing a Michael Jackson and walking around in a baseball cap with a handkerchief across my face.
A small selection of some of the many Get Well Soon cards that Lisa received
I completely appreciate that it's difficult for some people on the fringes of my life to know what to say, considering what they have discovered about me. But being ignored by someone you'd normally talk to every day is a pretty poor state of affairs. If you don't know what to say to your friend with cancer, then for God's sake, tell them that you don't know what to say! Even the bog-standard "stay positive", "you'll beat it" or "almost there" responses are practically Pulitzer prize-winning compared to the sudden, silent, dropping-off-the-radar route.

The Trouble With Cancer #2

No matter how kind or enlightening or thoughtful it may be, the fact of the matter is that nothing anyone says can make it better. Which brings me onto page one of that Cancer Etiquette Manual.

My advice to you is this: it's not always what you say – or even how you say it – that matters. Just the act of trying to say something is enough. Cancer may do all manner of dreadful, inconvenient, life-altering, difficult-to-stomach things to someone whom you dearly love, but anything – absolutely anything – is better than ignoring them, disappearing from sight or pretending they don't exist.

Well, anything apart from vacuuming your bum, that is.

Comments

    • 1. At 5:02pm on 23 Feb 2009, Baz wrote:

      After the tramatic past few years when I had my major accident which has resulted me in breaking my back in three places, T1-T4 and then having in 2007 the major operation to try and get my life back on track so to speak.

      Then I had to attend a cancer specialist after my GP had found and cut out a growth on my shoulder, the cancer specialist told me it had not turned yet for the worst and was sure it was cut out fully. We most relieved I felt more for my wife who really has been through so much these past years.

      Then just four days later I had to return to my GP as I had a chest infection as he listening to me he notice another growth on my back and remark he did not like this one one bit, and has made a appointment to remove it. I was told I have skin cancer so in all another big wallop has shown it's head yet again, but my family know me so well and as ever I just take it all on board by smiling and saying if we can break a back in three places and get away with it then this is nothing. My members of my family understand and have just asked various questions but baiscally I have made it known to them I just want no fuss no worrying, just turn those thoughts to their wonderful Mum

      Complain about this comment

    • 2. At 3:55pm on 17 Aug 2009, stjohn58 wrote:

      Lisa,
      My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, where the onset was quite developed from the initial stage, she told everyone, they thought it gave them the right to say inappropriate comments that only seem attributed to those with any illness, as if waiting in the wings for someone to target.

      After the all clear, it returned with vengeance and on this occasion she told nobody, that was a wise decision they did not have the capacity to say anything supportive even with the knowledge of her demise which she wore bravely and assiduously.

      Her memory will live long in all those who enter this journey whatever the outcome and my thoughts and wishes to those with equal valour. It is understandable these platitudes are expressed in comparison of saying the wrong thing; many have not given it any thought. Words however well meaning does not stem the tide of inevitability, when it is your clock that is ticking, what words are appropriate.

      Her double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radio therapy and trial initiative masked her beautiful presentation not a hint of the struggle within, we have all learned something about ourselves and I thank her.

      We are all better for knowing her.

      Take care, stjohn58

      Your observation made me smile. x

      Complain about this comment

      View these comments in RSS

      Bookmark with...

      What are these?

      Live community panel

      Our blog is the main place to go for all things Ouch! Find info, comment, articles and great disability content on the web via us.

      Mat and Liz
      Listen to our regular razor sharp talk show online, or subscribe to it as a podcast. Spread the word: it's where disability and reality almost collide.

      More from the BBC

      BBC Sport

      Disability Sport

      All the latest news from the paralympics.

      Peter White

      In Touch

      News and views for people who are blind or partially sighted.

      BBC Radio 4

      You & Yours

      Weekdays 12.40pm. Radio 4's consumer affairs programme.

      BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

      This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.