Over the summer of 2020, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. During this time, I learned a lot about the harsh reality of living with cancer. Media depictions of cancer often fail to accurately portray the illness.
Everyone has seen the commercials advertising medication to slow the progression of metastatic cancer. The people in these ads do a variety of normal activities while maintaining a smile. Metastatic cancer, also known as stage 4 cancer, is cancer that has spread through the body. When cancer has metastasized, survival rates drastically decrease, yet never do we see any of these people doing anything but smiling. Commercials of patients in hospitals function in a similar manner. Emotional music paired with smiling faces and people finishing treatment. These media representations of cancer have created a false image of the realities of the illness. They have created the idea that the correct way to handle cancer is to put on your boxing gloves and fight this thing with a smile.
In contrast, living with cancer involves bed ridden days. Laying on the floor of the bathroom unable to get up after vomiting for the last two hours. Losing hair in devastating clumps. Having your identity stripped away. One of the many things I discovered after my mom’s diagnosis was the oddly positive way people tend to view the cancer experience. I noticed a repetition of several phrases meant to help, but were actually damaging to both myself and my mother. These phrases are often well intentioned, but this does not eliminate their harm. I have compiled a list of the most common phrases spoken to my mother since her diagnosis and will address why each of them can be harmful. Many of these phrases are commonly said to people with a variety of illnesses outside of cancer.
Stay Strong / Stay Positive
These phrases are among the most commonly used when speaking to someone with cancer. They generally come from the heart and are entirely said with good intention. Unfortunately, these words can create feelings of invalidation and guilt. Staying strong/positive all of the time is both unsustainable and unrealistic. These phrases can cause feelings of failure when bad days inevitably occur. They may also unintentionally come across as instructions rather than advice. Remember, these phrases are likely not said once but many times by many different people and their effect compounds.
It’s all a head game / It’s all about keeping a positive mental state
Similarly to “stay strong” and “stay positive,” these phrases can make people feel guilty for having negative emotions and bad days. They disregard the lack of control people with cancer experience every day. While a positive mindset is helpful, it unfortunately is not a cure. Saying beating cancer is “all mental” can create feelings of invalidation and loneliness to the very physical experience of cancer. While these phrases frequently carry good intent, only the person experiencing cancer gets to decide the best way for them to handle it.
Referring to the illness as a battle or a fight
When referring to illness as a battle or a fight, it implies that the person in the battle has some type of choice that can affect the outcome. It implies the people who fail to “win their battle”, simply did not “fight” hard enough. Repetition of phrases such as “I am going to beat this” may improve some people’s mental state but they do not affect actual the outcome of treatment. People with cancer often have no choice in the way their cancer and treatment progress. They are stuck along for a ride that they did not want and definitely did not choose to take. Calling cancer a battle places choice into a matter that has none.
What have you learned so far?/ Have there been any positives?
These words tend to be spoken from a place of innocence, but I implore people to consider the feelings this may invoke. When a person is experiencing a life threatening circumstance, their focus is not frequently placed on personal growth. Focus instead tends to be placed on getting through the day. Some people may be okay answering these questions, but it is important to acknowledge that not everyone may be in a place where they are ready to reflect on their experience with cancer in this manner.
It could be worse
Yes, it could be worse. It could always be worse, but this is bad enough. This phrase functions as simple invalidation. Someone else having it worse does not eliminate the pain and suffering a person with cancer experiences on the daily. People with cancer face the reality of potentially losing their lives regardless of the stage or severity. Literal death should not be the standard of comparison for suffering.
You’re almost done
“You’re almost done” is the most complex phrase on this list because it is invalidating at every stage of cancer treatment and recovery. Having a life threatening illness is a psychological trauma. The effects of said trauma do not disappear the instant the trauma causing event has ended yet people behave under the assumption that the end of treatment means the end of dealing with this. Not only does cancer have a serious psychological toll, but the effects of chemotherapy can linger over 9 months after treatment. Radiation can discolor the skin for an entire year. Hair regrowth can take several years. Many people with cancer have undergone surgeries that permanently alter their appearances. Their bodies are covered in scars that will not go away. These people are not almost done and telling them that is invalidating to their experience.
My friend, cousin, sister, etc. had cancer and this is what happened
Congratulations! You know someone who has had cancer and want to tell your friend who currently has cancer. Don’t! Cancer is a very individual experience. One person’s experience may be completely different from the next. In sharing your friend’s/ aunt’s/ neighbor’s story, you may spark new fears that the person with cancer did not know they should even consider. Most importantly, do not share a story about someone dying from cancer. This is incredibly insensitive and has no value.
Note: Sharing stories if you yourself have experienced cancer as well as if you have been a caretaker of someone with cancer can be an exception. Connecting someone to a friend who has gone through cancer is also helpful. But remember, it is important to ensure the person you are telling the story to actually wants to hear it.
How long have you been doing this? What does your treatment look like?
This question is most commonly asked by strangers. In general, people with cancer will not want to discuss their treatment with people they do not know. It is best to wait for someone to come to you with these details rather than asking for it yourself. If someone wants to tell you about their experience with cancer, they should be able to do so of their own accord.
Cancer is a complicated and scary experience, and it is hard to know the right thing to say or do. Rather than saying the phrases on this list, simply let your loved one know you are there for them. Words such as “I’m here for you/ I’m thinking about you/ I’m praying for you” can make the person feel thought of. A simple hug accompanied by “I love you” is often enough.
Be a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen. Having a strong support system is incredibly important when dealing with cancer. Listen to your loved one’s struggles and rather than trying to fix it for them, acknowledge how hard the situation is. Reach out to them through text, phone calls, and visits. They may feel as though they are bothering you so do not hesitate to reach out first. Remember, not everything has to be about cancer. Cancer becomes a major part of a person’s life and it can be refreshing to not talk about it. It is okay to talk about other stuff, and it may actually be preferred. Laughter can be a true escape. Care packages are always appreciated but remember if it’s okay to send a book you simply think your loved one would like rather than that book about cancer.
The topic of an illness that can result in death makes people uncomfortable. The suffering caused along the way even more so. We have created a dialogue in the society that suffering is not allowed. Suffering must be hidden behind smiles and positivity. This façade is impossible to maintain and results in feelings of failure. Sometimes not everything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Sometimes it just really hurts, and only the person experiencing cancer gets to decide the best way for them to handle it.