When I discovered I had ovarian cancer at the age of 23, it was an absolute shock. Until then, the only people I'd met with cancer were elderly people who had outlived polio and enough other diseases that cancer seemed unavoidable (especially when you think of all the radiation and packaged food they ingested).
I can’t say that before my experience I would have had the right words for someone with cancer. But, having been the guinea pig about 18 months ago, let me share some wisdom of what NOT to say.
1. Things will get better.
This is THE most irritating thing someone could say to me. Let’s be honest: I just had a 4-pound tumor taken out of my body and I’m literally being held together with staples. If you were honest, you'd say, “It’s going to get really terrible, but after a lot of time and effort, well, if you’re lucky, you'll feel better.”
More importantly: I am fully aware that things will probably get better, but your telling me that will not give me some kind of epiphany that makes everything rainbows and kittens.
Sometimes you just need to say, “This sucks, let’s make some dream catchers and watch reality TV to remember how much better our lives are.”
2. You look better than the last time I saw you.
Even if you've never had chemo or never been close to someone going through chemo, you probably know that chemo generally makes you look and feel terrible. My skin did take on a beautiful waxy, doll-like appearance, but I also had a lack of eyebrows like the Mona Lisa and vertigo like I lived on a cruise ship.
People thought they were giving me a compliment when they said this, but what I heard is: “You looked awful the last time I saw you.” Chemo patients already feel like giant, bald infants being poisoned willingly so it’s better if you don’t constantly make comments on appearance. And PLEASE don’t overcompensate by saying things like “I just love your hat. What a wonderful hat. I think you should have that hat in every color.” I can read between the lines.
3. I'm praying for you.
Now, I’m sure some religious people are very comforted by this statement. Well, for us non-mainstream-religious people, it’s almost offensive. During a famous fever resulting from having a record zero white blood cells, I recall responding to a nurse’s “I’m praying for you” with: “Didn’t your God give me cancer? Maybe you should just give me the science for now.” Know your audience if you want to share this sentiment and please don’t send crucifixes in the mail. (Yes, this actually happened.) Either way, it's really creepy.
4. How are you feeling?
My mom always said that "to assume" makes "an ASS out of U and ME." In this case, go ahead and assume that your cancer friend feels like shit. There's no eloquent way to put it. Her urine smells like chemo, and everything makes her nauseous. She looks like a less buff Mr. Clean, probably lost her job or other equally important things in exchange for killing herself with cancer treatments. So just go ahead and assume that they are feeling terrible. Either she has to put that extra effort into fake smiling and saying “I’m feeling OK!” or she have to give the same speech of “Oh you know, feeling bad today ...” in the voice of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
5. This isn’t something you verbally say, but it's a way you communicate. Don’t make the “Aww, you poor thing” face.
Living in a small town, word of my cancer at a young age spread quickly. You know how I know? When I go to the pharmacy to buy nail polish and the lady behind the counter’s eyebrows gather upwards, her eyes start watering, I can’t tell if she’s constipated or going to cry, and she coos, “How ya doin' sweetie?” Oh great, she knows. Now I can’t just buy this nail polish, I have to see this face and then be crushed into her giant bosoms. I may have cancer, but I don’t need to be looked at like that cat with the wonky eye at the Humane Society that people feel bad for, but can’t bring themselves to adopt over a sexy kitten.
So please, remember that your cancer friends and family are people. The only thing that changed is their taking in less wine and more chemo and they’re going for a low-maintenance hair style. Treat them as such.