When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, there is shock, sadness, and there's the inevitable question of what to say? All too often people stumble, hesitate and then go on to make some ludicrous comment (all well intended) that is about has helpful as a chocolate teapot.
I can relate to a number of faux pas and clichés as I heard them more than once during my own cancer diagnosis. When really what I would have loved to have heard was a heartfelt, straight-talking comment or message that made sense and was completely honest. Because let's face it when things get tough you just don't need any more knocks.
So...what should you avoid saying to someone going through treatment for cancer? Here are my top 5 things NOT to say,
1. 'You'll be FINE.' - You're not a doctor or at least not mine. If our own oncologists can't tell us this then, unfortunately, you have no way of knowing this. It feels like you are belittling our very real fears.
2. 'Just stay positive.' - It's OK to cry and feel sad and worried sometimes. In fact it is probably a healthy way of coming to terms with the diagnosis.
3. 'I've read about this miracle cure...' - Don't believe everything you read online. ANYONE can write about a hokum pokum cure on the internet (think Belle Gibson). I don't believe that half a lemon a day with a teaspoon of turmeric is a better cure than chemo. We have the internet too and have made informed decisions about our own treatment options.
4. 'Oh, my neighbour/cousin/hairdresser had that. She died.' - I have NO idea why so many people think it's a good idea to share stories like this. But they do. And it REALLY doesn't help! I was stopped many a times by complete strangers who recognised the tell-tale headscarf signs, and wanted to tell me about a relative, friend or acquaintance who had died of cancer. Cue them walking off and me bursting into tears in the street or cake aisle at Sainsburys...
5. 'Hooray! It's all over.' - It takes a long time to adapt to the 'new normal'; coming to terms with the constant fear of the cancer returning, recuperating from surgery and treatment and dealing with ongoing side effects. Many of us find this harder than any of the treatment, but it isn't outwardly obvious.
That's well and good, but most people who haven't been through it just don't know what to say. So here are my top 5 tips of what you could say:
1. 'I don't really know what to say.' - Be honest. It is better than any meaningless platitudes or clichés. We don't expect you to know what to say. Just be there for us.
2. 'What can I do to help?' - Make it clear that you want to help and be direct. Casual offers of 'let me know if there is anything I can do' are harder to take up.
3. 'I'm so sorry you are ill.' - An acknowledgement that you care and realise that we are having a rubbish time is much better than any meaningless platitude or cliché.
4. 'I'm here for you.' - Cancer can be very isolating and friends tend to fall by the wayside. The best friends are those who remain by our sides throughout and keep in touch with regular phone calls, texts, letters, emails and visits (when we feel up to it).
5. 'Talk to me.' - Allow us to talk openly and frankly. Don't shy away from topics that make you feel uncomfortable if it is clear that we want or need to talk about them.