We don’t need to hear all the advice you found on Google because we’ve probably already read it, and we don’t need to hear your families history of it because we are dealing with a lot in that moment ourselves. We just want to be treated the same way you treated us before we were diagnosed with cancer.
Here are some things people say—and should avoid saying in the future—to any cancer patient ever, especially adolescents and young adults. In no particular order:
1) “Positive vibes only!”
I can understand how many people see positivity as a beneficial aspect of keeping your spirit up and how it could help outcomes, but at the same time, it’s cancer.
We need to be allowed to feel the feels during these times. If we are sad, tired, angry or jealous, let us. We probably need to feel that way in that moment and saying positive vibes only will just make us feel worse.
Remember: Just because someone has cancer, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t experience the natural highs and lows of treatment and life. We are human and it’s human nature to have a range of emotions.
2) “My older or elderly relative/friend/family friend died of cancer”
Congratulations on your positive attitude in sharing that horrible fact with me!
OK, sorry for your loss and all, but this isn’t helpful. What kind of cancer did they have? How far along were they? Did they have other conditions? How old were they? You don’t know? Well, that’s super helpful information (please note the sarcasm).
Please don’t compare anyone to someone else who had cancer, especially if that person died because of the cancer or cancer related complications. This is not what anyone needs to hear, especially when they are already contemplating the possibility of their own demise from this stupid disease.
If you compare a 25-year-old with colon cancer to an 85-year-old with colon cancer, you are making A LOT of assumptions.
3) “My dog got cancer”
“You should become a vegetarian” or “You should try eating this.”
Unless science has proven that vegetarianism and veganism actually prevents cancer, which it hasn’t done, do not say these words.
I know people who are vegetarian, vegan, athletes (hobbyist all the way to Olympic), babies, non-smokers, non-drinkers, healthy lifestyle activists—you name it—who have, or had, cancer.
Often when someone is going through treatment, the fact that they are eating at all can sometimes be a win, unless certain mediation advises against eating a certain food (for example, some heart and blood pressure medications advise against eating grapefruit). A friend recently told me they vomit up salad, so I would say don’t eat that then, regardless of cancer. Eat what you want in moderation. Cancer drugs can make you crave the weirdest foods. Don’t deprive yourself of that goodness, unless medically directed to avoid for an actual medical reason. You need to focus more about recovery than on what you’re eating (although sometimes those do go hand in hand).
4) “Have you tried this natural remedy?” or “You need to switch to all natural stuff“
This really isn’t the best advice to offer someone, whether it is cancer-related or not. There are some natural remedies that you can’t actually combine with some prescription medications as it can make them inert, rendering them useless and actually putting you in more danger.
There are some natural remedies that you can take but still need to consult a doctor. The decision is individual and up to the person. Some people believe in integrating both Eastern and Western medicine, and some people just want to stick with Western medicine and that works well for them.
What you don’t want to do is try to tell the person to take a supplement that could actually be dangerous for them. It’s best to let the patient decide what treatment options they should be using with their healthcare team.
5) “At least you have the good cancer“
Go away now or I will punch you.
There really is no such thing. It’s more like you have a very treatable cancer but that should never translate to “good cancer.”
6) “Battle with cancer”
These words can have a big impact on some people. I know many cancer peers hate these words. The phrase “lost the battle with cancer” assumes the person didn’t put up a fight when in fact they probably fought harder in their life than they ever had. Be careful with these words as not all cancer patients feel the same way.
7) General life advice re: kids/marriage/work
It’s just NOT the same for someone with cancer and undergoing treatment. They’ve often had to quit their job/go on LTD/CPP disability, move back home, put school on hold, use up what little savings they have, or question their fertility options. These aren’t opinions everyone faces, and if you have never faced these while battling a life-threatening disease, please try not to tell someone how we should proceed. Often these decisions are made within a week of being diagnosed and there is no time to “think them through” or “seek other options/opinions.”
We can’t explain why it’s different because it is just too tiring. Chances are the person has already explained why it’s different to 18 other people on their medical team, at their school, and/or in their workplace, and they don’t want to have to explain it to our friends as well. Just trust us.
8) “You don’t look sick”
Well, please tell me what cancer is supposed to look like. You know anyone at any age can have a disability and not look like it?
9) “Sugar feeds cancer, you should stop eating sugar”
This is the exact same thing as saying smoking causes lung cancer. If sugar fed cancer, everyone who ate sugar would get cancer. Same thing with smoking; everyone who smokes should get lung cancer. I personally know more people who have never smoked and have lung cancer than I know those who smoke and have lung cancer.
Cause and correlation are very different, and these two things often get mixed up. Don’t assume someone with cancer indulges in too much sugar, or suggest they need to cut down on their sugar intake.
10) Cancer is not one size fits all
Be mindful when addressing the topic of cancer, especially if you have not experienced it yourself. Respecting people’s rights as a patient is key, after all these patients are in the hands of very knowledgeable healthcare teams.
Should someone open up to you about their cancer experience, agenda-pushing during/throughout the difficult times is not helpful or necessary. Rather, listen to the patient and what they need from you. Ask questions, be curious and respect the decisions the patient is making for their own personal health and lifestyle.
If they happen to ask your advice note the tone and advise accordingly.
Kirsten Efremov, Hons. BSc., MPH., YACCtivist blog.