What do I Say
We all have had people say really stupid, at best, or hurtful, at worst, things to us about our cancer. When you are feeling well and forgiving, it is possible to remember that these remarks usually come from a place of good will and that hardly anyone has the overt intention of cruelty. When you are not feeling so well, it is very easy to be hurt and angry. Comments that often stimulate our strong negative responses may be the stories about the speaker's friend/cousin/co-worker/neighbor who "had just your kind of cancer....and died." or words that make it clear that the speaker is trying to put distance between us.
I sometimes suggest to my patients that they keep a list, either an acutual list or a mental one, of "Stupid Things People Say". This may be amusing someday, but the short term help is that it gives us something to do with the remark and our feelings. Rather than stand there dumb-founded or furious, we can think: "Oh, that is one for the list." I also have an excellent all purpose response that works in most circumstances: In a puzzled, not an angry voice, you wait for a full minute to pass and then say "What did you say that to me?" Works beautifully and inevitably leaves the other person stuttering.
This is a terrific essay from Psychology Today by Mindy Greenstein, PhD who is a psychologist who has had cancer. Intended to help people know what to say to their friends, it is helpful for us, too. You might even consider printing it out, Xeroxing it, and having a few copies ready to hand to someone who has just put her proverbial foot in her mouth. Here is an excerpt and then a link to read more (which I strongly recommend that you do):
They want to know how to be helpful. What do I say? I'm often asked.
The problem with answering that question is that the true answer takes a very long time to really understand, but here it is:
Get comfortable with your own mortality, and you won't even have to ask the question.
Think about what often happens inside our heads-with different levels of awareness or lack of it-when you hear your friend has cancer:
Oh my God. That's so terrible.
Oh my God. If it could happen to her, it could happen to me too.
At least it's not me.
Oh my God. Did I really just think that? I feel terrible.
With all that going on in your head, it's no wonder there isn't much room for just being yourself. So, the first lesson in how to be helpful is recognizing that you won't always be helpful. Sometimes, you'll be downright stupid. But hang in there. Research shows that the single most important factor in coping with cancer for many people is their social support system. It's ironic that mortality is one of the few attributes we share with every single other person in the world. And yet when we're dealing with it ourselves, it's the loneliest feeling there is.