Friday, October 22, 2010

What to say (& not) to someone with cancer

Jeffersonville Outlet Mall - hoping to park there soon      
Cancer, week one, is kind of like buying a new car.  Once you've got it, you see it everywhere. 

Yesterday's Today Show featured a woman who decided to host a head shaving party with her friends before she started chemo so she could get it over with.  (I needed a haircut, and had already gotten the 'slighter shorter than Ellen, slighter longer than pre-chemo cut the day before).  Losing my hair is not a deal breaker for me; I totally understand that some women view their hair as part of their identity and beauty.  I'm just not one of them.

Personally, I am more pissed that Pantene decided to discontinue the blue shampoo for silver hair in order to thin their ridiculous amount of offerings.  I need that stuff, no matter how much hair I have left.  (Contact them and complain, maybe they will bring it back)

Telling people I have cancer has also brought an interesting range of responses.  Which in a lot of ways reminds me of the reactions I received when I became, overnight, a 38 year old widow.  I know people panic and blurt things out that they probably regret later.  Or people figure that anything they say is probably going to come out wrong, so they say nothing.  So here is my guide to what to say (and not), and it is pretty much interchangeable for grieving (which we also totally suck at dealing with as a society) or illness:


1 - I know just how you feel.  One of my personal non-favorites.  Really, do you?  Probably not.  People that really do - don't say that.

2 - It's nothing!/it will be fine!/think positive!.  Unless you are one of my doctors, this probably doesn't help me much, and makes me want you to go away. Now. And take your ! with you.

3 - My mother/sister/co-worker/neighbor/grocery check-out clerk.....  Right now, I am definitely not cheered up by hearing about everyone you ever knew that died from cancer, nor I am ready to meet everyone you know that survived.  (Survivor intro offers are ok, and will be saved for later, - not saying that's a bad thing; I am just not ready to start my own club -  death stories, um, better saved from later, don't you think?) 

I think this is a natural response, and a way that people relate - I heard about every death that ever occurred, including beloved pet hamsters, when I was grieving, but I got tired of consoling the survivors when I was in the worst stage of dealing with my own grief. I am not terminal, so I really don't want to entertain that kind of thinking right now.

4 - Reminding me about all of the not so great things I've done that may have contributed to my diagnosis.  Hey, you think I didn't already run that list in my head? 


1 - Acknowledge, sympathize, support - It's really as simple as saying "I'm sorry to hear about your diagnosis.  Let me know if I can help".  Hell, you don't even have to offer to help, just keep it simple. (If you do want to help, there are some cat boxes that will need attention the week of Thanksgiving, come on over).  This article, probably better written than I could, also kind of sums it up.

To those that said "I don't know what to say".  That works too.  It's honest without being patronizing, and I appreciated that a lot. 

So with the help of a little Valium, I survived the MRI.  I thought about halfway through when my nose started to itch, the dye turned my left side icy, the metallic tasted filled my mouth and I felt nauseous and ready to scream, that I wasn't going to make it.  The jackhammer noise, while laying on my belly with my face and boobs hanging through holes in table - surreal.  But there was no freaking way I was going to have to start over, so I sucked it up and got through it.

Results next week.  Hopefully no more, than was already revealed in the prior tests.  Then next Friday, meeting the oncologist.  It's turning into Cancer Fridays around here. 


  1. Thanks for the tips. I'll keep those in mind-- especially what NOT to say.

  2. Great post Tami. I really like and appreciate how honest you are - and I bet others reading this, like myself, will take your words to heart for lots of other scenarios as well. I'm not a pray-er, but I'm keeping you in my thoughts and wishing the best for you - keep that chin up, diva ;)

  3. One thing I really appreciate about you is the way you tell it like you see it. That's what makes this "how to" so helpful. There's been a lot of cancer in my circle of friends and family this year, so this will be helpful in dealing with them - you included - as they go through their own unique experiences with this disease. I'm holding you in my thoughts.

  4. Excellent post Tami! I appreciate your honesty also. And you're correct - people don't always know what to say, but remember how it can be awkward for them. Interesting how illness can scare people off - like cancer is contagious! But I can say from experience, most have your best interest at heart, they love and care about you, but may not be able to show it. Now, where are those litter boxes????

  5. A cooking friend sent me over to your blog today. I can't cook worth a darn, but I did have breast cancer (also known as "how I spent 2009") and blogged about it.

    I'd add to your "not to do list"--don't immediately look at my breasts when I tell you I have breast cancer!! (I always wondered what people thought they were going to see.)

    Your humor will see you through. (Wait 'til people start telling you how strong you are, and how pretty your face is, which is how they totally known you'll be fine bald and tired. Must laugh.Just not in their faces. They mean well.)
    All the best.

  6. Teresa - just did a speed read on your blog - LOVE IT! (I have caught a few glimpses at the girls :-) )

    Except for the part that it just dawned on me my new friend Cancer might be spending more time visiting than I had really wrapped my brain around yet.

    Winters are long in Akron, OH, so it'll definitely help pass the time.

    I am also planning to visit Hawaii again after treatment.

  7. Tami, Thanks to your inspiration and honesty, I had a mammogram - put off for many months - on Monday. You were in my thoughts then(no, it wasn't you I was cursing during the process!)and will continue to be as you go forward with your treatment.

  8. My mother in law goes into surgery for her recently diagnosed breast cancer in a few days. She's taking an aggressive approach with the surgery so she can hopefully avoid chemo if possible. Wishing you the best outcome and if I lived closer, I would take care of your cats and yes cat boxes. Take care!

  9. Thank you Tami. We often are inept when it comes to addressing others health concerns. Your do and don't guide is great.

    In my thoughts and prayers!


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