Lots has already been written about what to say and what not to say to people who’ve got or who’ve had cancer. As for me, now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I know there are certain phrases that I myself may have used in the past that I will never use again in any circumstances – except perhaps as a joke.
I’m aware I’m probably more sensitive to things like this now, and I know we often say things with the best of intentions, but I’m banishing the following from my vocabulary from here on in:
- “It could be worse.” How often do we say this? Of course it could (almost) always be worse, but if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, it could also be a whole lot better.
- “You could get hit by a bus.” Again, of course you could, but it’s extremely unlikely. Everyone knows, or knows of, a good few women who’ve had breast cancer. How many people do you know or know of who’ve been hit by a bus*? The most recent figure I could find for pedestrian fatalities in road traffic accidents in Great Britain is for 2014 and it’s 446. And I imagine most of those casulaties will have been hit by a car, not a bus. In the UK, there were around 53,700 new cases of invasive breast cancer in 2013 and around 11,360 women died of breast cancer in 2014. There’s no comparison really, is there?
- “We’ve all got to die of something.” This one now strikes me as particularly insensitive. Of course it’s true, but if you could choose how to die**, I’m assuming no-one would ever choose breast cancer, or indeed any kind of cancer.
- “If you’re going to have cancer, breast cancer’s a good one to have.” I’d heard this and kind of accepted it as fact… without any knowledge whatsoever. I know why people say it. Breast cancers generally don’t grow as fast as some other cancers, it’s usually obvious how to treat breast cancer and lots of people who are diagnosed with breast cancer and treated are effectively cured – in that it doesn’t come back. But there’s no guarantee. Also, there’s breast cancer and there’s breast cancer; some cases are much more serious than others and there are different types, some of which are much harder to treat than others. The bottom line is that no cancer is good to have.
It’s obvious why we say phrases such as these. We have a need to try and rationalise things that happen to us that we weren’t expecting and that frighten us. Or we want to say something to reassure either ourselves or the people we’re talking to. Or we’re embarrassed and we feel words are better than silence. We mean well. Nonetheless, I won’t be saying these particular phrases again. I don’t think my vocabulary will be any the poorer for it.
*I do in fact know someone who was hit by a bus. She’s a very good friend and was on her bike at the time. Many years later she still has a dent on her chin from the encounter!
**If I had any say in the matter, I think I’d choose to die the way my 94-year-old mother-in-law died just this weekend… of old age, peacefully, in the company of loved ones. Lilian was an important and lovely part of our lives; we’ll miss her.