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When Someone Says the Wrong Thing

When Someone Says the Wrong Thing

It seems like every cancer patient I know can tell the same story. Someone hears that the patient has cancer, and says something insensitive.

Maybe it’s a friend or family member. Maybe it’s a stranger. It’s usually a comment that was not asked for. And it often comes at the worst time.

“The Last Lecture”

The one that always comes to mind for me was from a former student of mine. The student sent me a link to a video called “The Last Lecture.”

The man in the video was a professor. His school had a series called “The Last Lecture,” where professors were told, “If you could only give one more lecture, what would you talk about?” And then they delivered the lecture.

For the professor in the video, it really was his last lecture. He was young and had brain cancer and was given a few months to live. He had small kids.

My former student’s comment with the link? “This reminded me of you.”

A teacher in his 40’s with an incurable cancer and 3 kids? Yes, that did sound a lot like me.

I might not have the details right for that video. I didn’t click the link, and 10 years later, I still haven’t watched it. It put me under a dark cloud for a week.

In those 10 years, I’ve had people tell me all kinds of things that have put me under a dark cloud. Sometimes the cloud disappeared quickly. Sometimes it lasted for days. I’ve been told I was eating the wrong thing (usually as I’m enjoying the thing they are criticizing), and told I should eat the right thing (usually something that will add $50 a week to my grocery bill). I’ve been told I was exercising wrong (my naturally bouncy walk with my dog wasn’t good enough – I needed a special trampoline to bounce on). I was told that the Wikipedia page that said the survival for my cancer was 8-10 years was “troubling” to the person who read it (yeah – that was troubling to me, too. Thanks for the reminder).

And those are just a few of the ones that I heard in the first couple of months after I was diagnosed. And they all just made me more worried than I already was.

The turnaround

Like just about everything related to my cancer, things got better with time. The comments stopped bothering me so much. The dark cloud went away quicker.

I forced myself to rethink what people were saying to me. After all, these were usually people who I knew and loved; they were usually good and kind people. They would never deliberately say something hurtful to another person – especially not someone with cancer. Sadly, that’s not always true. But it was with these folks.

So I did a little exercise in my mind: as insensitive as the comment might be, as much as it might hurt me right now, how can I look at this as positive? What could they have meant that would be helpful, not hurtful?

After all, the people who want me to drink expensive South American berry juice or buy new exercise equipment are looking out for my health. The person who was concerned about survival rates was trying to share my worry. Even my former student was trying to be nice. Apparently, that video showed what a passionate and caring teacher he was (so I am told).

People almost always say the wrong thing when they don’t know what else to say. They see a cancer patient and feel helpless. They say the thing that makes them feel like they are helping, even if it actually does the opposite.

I do my best to keep that in mind.

So what’s your story? What did someone say to you that turned out to be the wrong thing to say?

More importantly, is there some way you can see the good in what they said?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Nichola75
    11 months ago

    Just today actually! I’ve had a really bad week this week. When people have asked if I’m ok I’ve said I’m fine. Today a friend asked and I thought, right, I’m not going to go
    on but I’m going to say I’m finding things difficult – especially the new
    notmal. She replied ‘it is what it is’ it really took me back and definitely shut me up. However, reading this and thinking back, she was uncomfortable with the conversation. She has lost her mum to cancer in the last couple of years and was just trying to pull me
    back up. She didn’t mean to upset me but really all I wanted was a hug. Going to try not to let it put me off sharing things in the future x

  • Anthony Carrone moderator
    11 months ago

    Hey @nichola75 – I think you were very brave for being honest about how you were feeling today – even if you didn’t go on about it. It’s great that you were able to see her response from another perspective after reading this! I hope it helped make this week a little better 🙂 Sending virtual hugs and positive vibes! -Anthony

  • Nichola75
    10 months ago

    Thanks Anthony 🙂

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