When Words are Tough: Dealing with Cancer


cancerI don’t really consider myself a cancer survivor.  I mean, I’ve had cancer and I don’t now, so I guess that technically makes me a survivor, but the reality of my experience pales in comparison to what so many people go through.  I thank the Lord every single day that I didn’t have to endure chemo, radiation, sickness, hair loss – and as a result I don’t feel like I have earned the survivor title.

Nevertheless, I did go through ups and downs due in part to the whacked out hormones I was treated with, I did have several minor and major surgeries and I did struggle (and still do from time to time) with the fear of the unknown and all the “what ifs” that come with the big “c” word.  I won’t lie, it was and is still hard to deal with certain inevitable outcomes, and being the kind of person who needs to talk things out, I looked for my support system.  The problem is, talking about any illness can be tough for people.  Knowing the “right” thing to say is a skill few have mastered and most feel awkward searching for those perfect words.

I’ve compiled a list of the “most heard” phrases.  They seem to be among the standard “safe” responses, and while there is nothing wrong with them, a simple twist can make them all the more meaningful and personal.

Usual: I can’t imagine what you’re going through.

Maybe Try: I’m so sorry you are going through this.

This used to be my standard go-to phrase.  I used it all the time never realizing how it sounds from the other end, until I was on the other side.  It seems innocent enough, right? I mean, empathy is a great quality to possess. The problem is, it’s not about me understanding, it’s about you being sick.  It has to be all about you.  You are fighting a huge battle – often times for your life – and that sucks.

Usual: What can I do to help?/Let me know if I can help.

Maybe Try: Would it be ok if I did ___ to help?

I heard this repeatedly.  The thing is, illness has a way of making you feel like a burden. The last thing you want to do is ask for more help.  Besides, I don’t know what you are willing to help with – cooking, cleaning, watching the children?  In reality, help in ANY of those areas would be greatly appreciated.  So decide on a gesture that you are comfortable making and offer that specifically.  I guarantee I wouldn’t have called anyone to come help me, but if someone told me they were bringing us meatloaf for dinner Tuesday night, I wouldn’t have told them no.  Make your offer specific and genuine, and then follow through.

Usual: It could be worse.

Maybe Try: I’m here to listen.

My situation really COULD have been worse.  So much worse.  But amidst mourning the loss of my reproductive abilities, it sure didn’t feel like things could get any worse. Emotions run high when you are sick, and while everyone’s battle is completely different, it always becomes priority.  While it’s true that things could usually be worse, thinking about those things don’t make the current bad thing seem any less bad.  What helped me the most was letting it all out. There was something therapeutic about saying things out loud – thoughts, whines, fears, everything. Having someone to just listen (not fix, not console, just listen) was a gift in itself.

Usual: You’re in my prayers.

Maybe Try: Let’s pray together.

This is the other one I heard almost everyday.  I hear it so much and I often wonder how many times someone who says it actually does it.  I mean, I have no doubt that there are people who really do pray all those promised prayers, but I would be willing to bet this is another “safe” phrase people fall back on when nothing else comes to mind. But what about people who are far away? Pray over the phone or send them an email with your prayer written in it. One of the most meaningful things someone did for me was post a prayer on my Facebook wall.  I’m not talking about a cute image with some prewritten prayer, I’m talking about the words they themselves actually prayed for me. It let me know that I really was being thought about and that meant the world.

 What words have you found helpful during hard times? 

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Born and raised throughout the Midwest, Lindsey has officially called Oklahoma home for nearly ten years. Wife to Michael and mother to Ivan, she left the corporate world to be home with her family full time in 2012. When not chasing her ridiculously active 18-month old, Lindsey enjoys being involved in community organizations and planning outings for a local moms group. She also enjoys running, reading, road trips and all things mid-century.


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