Handling Insensitive Comments

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work, emeritus

JULY 11, 2018

How to Reply to the Ominous, the Invasive and the Rude

Sometimes, it’s hard to square people’s good intentions with their insensitive comments. These verbal mishaps come in many forms. The ominous: “My cousin had the very same cancer, and she died.” The invasive: “What is your prognosis?” Or the backhanded compliment: “I think your wig looks much better than your hair ever did.”

In Cancer World, you can depend on one thing: Someone will say something that will be difficult to handle. Remember that you owe the other person nothing in this moment. Your obligation is to take care of yourself.

You can prepare by having a few strategies to employ. Most comments just require the right rebuttal, and it is much easier to have some prepared than to think quickly of what to say.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. The very best all-purpose response is to count to thirty and then to ask in a puzzled, not an angry, way: “Why did you just say that to me?” This neatly puts the burden back on the other person. Then you wait.
  2. Plan a few responses, ranging from tactful to rude, and choose the one that fits the situation. You might say, “I know you care about me, but I would prefer not to talk about this.” Or you could more forcefully draw a line and say, “How dare you ask me that?” Living with cancer is not an etiquette contest; you are allowed to say whatever most helps you.
  3. Consider keeping an electronic or paper list of outrageous comments. Then, when you hear one, you can think about how good it will be to add it to the list, rather than immediately feeling hurt or angry. Having an actual place to file the comment away gets it off your shoulders.
  4. After someone says something hurtful, you can always respond again later if you are still upset. Think about sending an email or a note.
  5. If you participate in an online or in-person support group, consider spending a few minutes at each meeting sharing the week’s collections of remarks. This gives you another place to unload these comments and to share effective responses.
  6. Feel free to offer your doctor as an excuse for rejecting unsolicited treatment advice: For example, “My doctor has told me not to consider any special diets or supplements at this time.”

The bottom line is that even well-meaning friends make mistakes. When you are going through cancer, your most important obligation is to yourself. You are not responsible for taking care of others or for protecting their feelings. If you can respond with honesty about your reactions, they may well apologize. If so, you can decide whether the hurt was too deep to ignore or whether you can move on. For the most part, life is way too short to hold grudges.

Join the discussion by leaving your comment on our BIDMC Cancer Community.