Cancer leaves us tongue-tied — or worse

Monday, November 23, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

My friend, Lisa, has cancer.

It’s hard to believe. It is always hard to truly comprehend — to feel it in one’s gut where realization resides, at least for me — that someone we know has this disease, though it afflicts thousands of people every year.


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You’ve got to see how this woman is coping with this new fact of her life to believe it. I ran into her and another friend on the MKT on an unseasonably warm Saturday a few weeks ago, and she was full of energy and resolve. She was giggling about a T-shirt that a friend was planning to get her. It says something like, “Cancer, you picked the wrong woman to mess with.”

Her edgy sense of humor, I am happy to report, is hanging in there.  Though her diagnosis is relatively recent, she told me she could already write a book about the experience. For example, she said, there are those well-meaning but pretty dumb things that people say when they’re casting about for something — anything — to keep the conversation going.

My mind immediately leapt to the dumb thing I’d said to my best friend’s mother, when she was in the last year of her life after a long struggle with cancer. It was the first time I’d seen her in years, and she was wearing a wig — having lost her gorgeous, dark curly hair that was, justifiably, a point of pride.

“Well,” I said, cheerfully, “you don’t look like a sick person.”

As if that would somehow make everything okay — as if it’s more important to look good than to feel good.

Lisa has heard a few of these winners herself in the past few weeks.  She compiled them in this Top Ten list. Because we’ve all stumbled in our effort to say “the right thing.” And because we all know someone who has this disease, or we will, someday.

Top 10 things not to say when someone has cancer:

  1. “Wow, the doctors are seeing you really fast. It must be serious.”
  2. “My brother/sister/cousin/friends/neighbor had cancer and really struggled and didn’t make it, but I’m sure you’ll do great.”
  3. “I looked up your diagnosis on the Internet and I learned that you should….”
  4. “Do you know what stage it’s in?”
  5. “I know someone who had your type of cancer, and she doesn’t look very good, but she made it.”
  6. “Do you know what caused it?”
  7. “Wow, and you’re not even a smoker.”
  8. “Aren’t you afraid?”
  9. “Do you have your affairs in order?”
  10. “Can you see it?”

If you see your words on Lisa’s list, try not to feel embarrassed. And consider her advice about what to say instead — these simple words (followed by action): “What can I do to be supportive?”

Or consider, “Do you want to talk about it?”

And, “May I ask a few questions? And if I go too far, will you please tell me?”

I’m beginning to get the sense that we do far less harm when we acknowledge that we’re in unfamiliar territory, and that we don’t know exactly what to say or do.

I like that Lisa gave me something to do — preparing one dinner, a specific request: one buffalo meatloaf with mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus.

Coming right up, Lisa.

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deborah millatti-brunovsky December 2, 2009 | 7:55 a.m.

Hi Katherine, and thank you for the great article for all of us to use. I am grieved that my baby sister must endure this kind of pain and uncertainty, however; I am grateful that she is who she is. Her outcome will be that of a winner, I am certain. Deborah.

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