There are few words as frightening as cancer. The term has been around since 400BC, when Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek father of medicine, named a mass ‘karkinos’, or ‘crab’. When his work was studied by the Romans, they used their word for crab: cancer. Tumours can be as hard and stubborn as their crustaceous namesakes. Hippocrates was onto something.
The C-word grabbed me by its claws last year when my mum was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Wednesday is World Ovarian Cancer Day and according to charity Ovarian Cancer Action, 33,000 women are currently living with the disease in the UK.
There is no single best approach for supporting someone with cancer. But if you know someone living with a diagnosis, I suggest you don’t say any of the below.
“What stage is it?”
Well-meaning people asked about my mum’s stage, hoping (like I did) that it was on the lower end of the scale. With ovarian cancer, smaller figures mean it’s confined to the ovaries and their immediate surroundings and is significantly easier to treat. More advanced numbers mean it has spread around the body.
In my mum’s case, a bulky tumour wrapped itself around her bowel like a boa constrictor, making her cancer stage 3c. I didn’t – I don’t – like the sound of that.
But cancer doesn’t always obey the rules. A stage 1 may multiply. A stage 4 can sometimes be tamed. The medical categorisations are to help professionals and the patient with their treatment plan.
I recommend you don’t ask the numbers unless the person openly shares. It was hard to see people’s reactions to the 3c.
“What’s the prognosis?”
There may be a time where prognosis information will be provided by doctors, but if that is not volunteered then don’t ask the patient the impossible question.
If you turn to Google, know that statistics are by definition historical data. They’re not a decree about what will happen to person you love.
There are constant advancements in cancer research and treatment. Imperial College London recently announced new AI software that can predict responses and survival with significant accuracy. As difficult as it is, you have to hope these innovations continue.
“You’re so brave”
As my mum (a 58-year-old bald Geordie) says, “I’m not brave, I’m just me.”
Macmillan Cancer Support warns well-meaning clichés like calling patients “victims” or “heroes” can be disempowering, isolating and put people under (unintended) pressure to be positive.
The charity recommends people talk more about the words they want to hear. Opening the conversation allows both the patient and their support network to navigate the emotional minefield of a diagnosis.
In my mum’s case yes, she is brave, but she doesn’t want to hear any of the battle language. Her bravery is separate from her cancer (see: swimming in the North Sea on Boxing Day). And yes, she is my hero, but she’s been my hero since the second I understood the meaning of the word. Just don’t tell her I said that.
“Is it hereditary?”
I asked, my mum asked, many others asked us. In the UK, you speak to an NHS genetic counsellor before any investigation into whether ovarian cancer is hereditary. There’s a reason for this: it’s an incredibly serious and emotional decision.
A little-known fact about ovarian cancer is 15% of cases are linked to a genetic mutation called BRCA. There was a very real chance my sister and I could have it too, and it was terrifying. I jumped the gun and asked too soon, instead of focussing on my mum’s recovery as number one priority. She got the results back. It’s not genetic and all that extra worry was for nothing.
“I don’t want to burden you, I know you’re going through a lot”
A person is not their illness. My mum is still my mum. There’s a constant balance that needs to be struck between asking after someone’s health and reminding them of their cancer.
Whatever your relationship was with a cancer patient before their diagnosis, let it continue where you can. Be considerate to their wellbeing but not everything has to be couched in terms of cancer. My “problems” are categorically and comically trivial compared to my mum’s, and there’s no point repeating the obvious when I ask her advice on hard-hitting topics like how to stop my Swiss cheese plant shrivelling.
The C-word may be fearsome, but it can’t be ignored, especially when you consider one in two people born after 1960 will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime. There are so many ways you can support someone who has cancer… Just don’t call my mum brave.