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15 Things You Probably Shouldn’t Say or Do When Someone is Diagnosed With Cancer

If there’s one thing that causes awkwardness…. it’s cancer.

When someone is diagnosed, granted, it’s hard knowing how to act around them or what to say.

So, here’s an insight into some of the things one should really try to avoid doing or saying. A friend who’s been diagnosed requires a degree of compassion, yet people say and do the funniest or stupidest things.

Cancer isn’t a joke. It’s either life changing or it kills. However, as the saying goes ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ so with the help of some friends who’ve also been diagnosed with breast cancer, I’ve compiled a list of ‘faux pas’. Some may make you chuckle. They certainly did me.

1. Let’s start with the one question that frankly gets asked too much. “So, you’re all clear now?” Unfortunately, cancer treatments don’t always work. The reality is that although your friend may be told that they’re NED (No evidence of disease) the constant worry that the cancer may reoccur is with them 24/7. Your friend may be living but their life is now a game of Russian Roulette, dodging bullets daily.

2. One line I personally recall and still gives me shivers is, “Well, at least you get check-ups every few months, it’s more than I get.” Are you being serious? Do you really think I enjoy that gut wrenching feeling of getting test results and contemplating the unthinkable every time I see my oncologist? Please!

3. Unbelievably, even family can be insensitive. Miranda, 34, comes from Croydon. When I asked her if she had anything to contribute, she came up with these corkers. “My Mum passive aggressively suggested that the reason she hadn’t had breast cancer, yet myself and her two sisters had, was because her diet was better over the years.” I mean, come on, perhaps Miranda’s mum was having an off day and she didn’t really mean that….
Miranda continues, “One day my mum gave me a lift home after a routine hospital appointment. On the way back to her house, she had an accident for which she blamed me for, claiming that if she hadn’t been driving me, she wouldn’t have crashed the car!” Okay, so mothers can be tactless at times, right Miranda?
Miranda continues, “She also woke me from a deep sleep once to tell me that my washing had finished in the washing machine and that I should hang my clothes out on the line. This was just after my second chemo when I had as much energy as a new-born lamb. How I’ve managed to stay sane, I just don’t know!” Oh dear, at this point, I think we can all feel a little bit sorry for Miranda.

4. Marianne, aged 51 is from Cockfosters and she recounts the time a work colleague wanted to visit her as she couldn’t imagine her bald. The colleague arrived with husband and toddler in tow. At one point, Marianne was telling them about people who had survived cancer to which the husband replied “You don’t hear much about the ones who make it do you?!” Needless to say, Marianne no longer stays in touch with her work colleague.

5. She also remembers this useful nugget of advice, “Drink plenty of water and it will flush it away!” Oh, Lord, if only it were that easy!

6. Helen is 35 and comes from Oxford. Someone sent her an hour-long video once, explaining the best way to cure breast cancer. Surely enough, Helen didn’t watch it and is no longer friends with that person. Cancer is scary enough and sometimes those well-meaning gestures can make matters worse, so unless, there are proven medical grounds for a certain cure, then it’s best to refrain.

7. Once, during her treatment, Helen found herself in Accident & Emergency with what turned out to be Neutropenia. This is when your white blood cell count is so dangerously low that you’re not able to have chemo and you’re also at risk of infection. Helen, who was unable to walk, talk or stand and her then boyfriend waited to be seen. A nice man in the queue turned to her boyfriend and said, “I don’t care if she’s got fucking cancer, I was here first!” Helen was later wheeled past the nice man on a bed. Apparently, he looked rather guilty.
8. I think all the younger women quoted here have heard this line a few times, “You’ve got/ had breast cancer?! But you’re so young!” It’s a misconception that only older ladies can have breast cancer. Every year in the UK, around 5,000 women, under the age of 45, are diagnosed.
9. Julie, 45, is originally from Scotland but now lives in North East London. She was slightly cheesed off when someone told her how lovely it was to see her smiling. As surprising as it may seem, having cancer doesn’t take away someone’s ability to smile.
10. Emma, 38 is from Hemel Hempstead. One of her bug bears is folk telling her to ‘keep fighting’ or telling her how brave she is. I agree. Being brave or fighting is not what we do. There is just no choice in the matter, we carry on, period.
11. If I had a pound for every time I hear this one, I’d be rich. “Did you know that cannabis cures cancer?” Not sure what the counter argument is to that one but when you consider the options, dying, or not dying, well, you just go down the conventional route because it’s the most accessible. Let’s also set the record straight. Although there are ongoing clinical trials, there is no real evidence that cannabis cures cancer.
12. When I asked Julie, 57, from Herefordshire, for feedback, she mentioned something that regularly pops up on my Facebook feed even, but really isn’t helpful in the scheme of things.
“The government is keeping the cure for cancer secret so the drug companies can keep making millions.” Really. Not. Helpful.
13. Thankfully, this next question doesn’t get asked very often but Julie was shocked by the person who asked about her ‘prognosis’. To put it mildly, morbid fascination will get you nowhere in the friendliness stakes.
14. “You look great bald!” People really are stuck for something to say when this one comes out. Unfortunately, chemo causes widespread baldness to the max. I’m talking every single hair on your body disappearing. Making a saving on shampoo and leg waxes are the only benefits of being hairless. Having no eyebrows or eyelashes and resembling an egg is not a benefit. Furthermore, I hated being bald because that’s when I discovered that, actually, my head wasn’t quite as cute and round as I’d hoped.
15. Lastly, another phrase that people with cancer hear all the time is this one, “You know where I am if you need me.” Well, that’s so nice, because any help is welcome. Regrettably, what then tends to usually happen is that the helpful friend disappears off the face of the earth, never to be heard from again. Until, of course, on one random day, sometime in the future, said person accidentally bumps into their friend with cancer in Sainsbury’s.

As I said, if there’s one thing that causes awkwardness…. it’s cancer.

On that note, if you’re curious to know the ‘do’s’ of cancer etiquette, please take a look at my previous blog post.

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