The Big C: what not to say or do if you know someone who has it

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In this extract from her new book, cancer survivor Alison Tucker shares some tips about what people should and should not say to loved ones who are battling the disease. Picture: Getty Images/Gallo Images
In this extract from her new book, cancer survivor Alison Tucker shares some tips about what people should and should not say to loved ones who are battling the disease. Picture: Getty Images/Gallo Images

"Alison, I’ve got bad news." The voice of the pathologist at the other end of the telephone confirmed for Alison Tucker the news no woman ever wants to hear: she had breast cancer.

In her new book, My Best Worst Year, the South African shares some of her experiences from the year she spent undergoing treatment.

One of the things she learnt was that friends and family are often desperate to offer their support but have no idea what they should be doing. In this extract from her book, she offers some helpful advice about what you can do that to make a real difference as well as the things you should never say to a cancer patient - for instance, she suggests you should definitely avoid expressions such as "Don't worry, it's going to be okay", "keep fighting" and "You're so brave".

Choose your words with care

There are a few expressions that really used to unsettle me, and I know they do the same for many others too. For instance avoid the following:

Referring to cancer as a "journey"

Honestly, you are going nowhere. For me, a journey is a trip somewhere, an exciting excursion, not enduring cancer treatment. You do not pack a suitcase. You do not take your passport. A journey is ‘an act of travelling from one place to another’. This is not cancer, so please do not refer to what I am going through as a journey. 

Saying things like: "keep fighting"

Winning or losing the cancer battle. Cancer is not a war. A cancer patient does not don combat gear and fight. In fact, they are unlikely to have that sort of energy.

Cancer patients are simply doing what they need to do, going through the motions of what they have been advised are their best options. You spend energy coming to terms with cancer. I would sooner see it as something I am gently nudging and encouraging to disappear, rather than an enemy that I am trying to eradicate.

Furthermore, this notion implies that if someone does not recover from cancer, they did not fight hard enough, which is not true. 

"You are so brave"

Talking about being brave makes it feel as though you have a choice, but the reality is you do not. You are having treatment because that is what you must do. You get through it okay on most days but that does not make you a hero of any sort.

"Everything is going to be okay"

This is a commonly used expression when communicating with cancer patients. But it only serves to trivialise their fear and to make them feel guilty for feeling anxious  in the first place.

It does not acknowledge their feelings and fear and does not take into consideration that everything was not okay when they had their biopsy and may not have been okay through several milestones during their cancer experience.

Cancer produces plenty of surprises and everything is not always okay. You might ask what one should say instead? Cancer patients just want to feel heard and have their fear acknowledged so something as simple as the following would be appreciated: ‘It must feel scary. I really hope that everything will be okay for you.’

'Do not ask, just do'

"Do not worry, it will all be over soon" 

It feels like it is never going to end and, it does not end. Even when treatment is over, you remain a cancer patient. You remain a cancer patient for the rest of your (hopefully) long life.

Saying it "will all be over soon" is dismissive of how you are feeling during the long haul and the word "soon" just does not cut it. Perhaps saying something like, "I can understand it must feel like it is dragging on forever. I admire you for your endurance" would sit more comfortably.

Even the adage "This too shall pass" resonates better than the "soon" statement.

"How are you?" 

Okay, I confess that I am being a bit "picky" here as this is seemingly a very ordinary question. A preferred option with a cancer patient would, however, be: "How has your day been today?"

The former makes me want to answer, "You mean, besides having cancer?" The latter makes me feel that I can share whether I have had a good or a bad day, relatively speaking, and acknowledges that there are both in the world of a cancer patient.

"Please let me know if there’s anything I can do" 

In times of death or illness, I have often used the words. Now I know: do not ask, just do.

It is very hard to ask for help or to reallocate seemingly small tasks to friends. When they anticipate your needs and simply tell you that they have "got it" and are actioning it, it is the most welcome sense of relief.

How you can really make a difference

Remove stress

Anything that lightens the load will have a positive impact in reducing the patient's stress and making life that much more bearable during a tough, trying time.

Some simple examples of removing stress could be proactive offers to:

  • Drive them to an appointment.
  • Collect some bread and milk or grocery supplies for them on your way home from work.
  • Fetch or drop children off at activities on their behalf or give them a reprieve from their school lift club.
  • Take their medication prescriptions to the pharmacy for them.
  • Deliver a cooked meal for their family 

Published by Tracey McDonald Publishers. Available
Published by Tracey McDonald Publishers. Available in all good bookstores with a recommended retail price of R280.

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