Don’t Speak

I’ve seen a lot of items on blogs lately listing the silly things that people say to cancer patients. This issue rears its ugly head every so often. I will not stop commenting on all of those blogs that we need a list of snappy, or thought provoking (as in silencing the person who makes the comment) comebacks that we cancer patients can use when it happens. I wish such a tool had been handy for me upon diagnosis.

Until then, I do have some advice for those who ask, “What can we say to our loved ones with cancer?”

Don’t say anything, it is no longer your turn to talk. It IS your turn to listen.

I grew up around lots of talkers. All the women in my family talk so much I rarely get a word in edgewise. And because some branches of the family hail from a Dixie state, they inherited that speech pattern of Southerners…in which it takes forever and a damn day to arrive at the point…that is, if they ever get there. Don’t believe me? Read the essays of my favorite humorist, Celia Rivenbark–she explains far better than I ever could. (Just look for her books with awesome titles like “Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank”, or “You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start In the Morning”–these books pulled me out of my post-treatment depression). Finally, at the ripe age of 41, I am able to say to my mother, when she interrupts me for the 100th time to jump off from something I said, midstream, to a point I was NOT heading for: “will you shut up and let me finish my damn thought for once!”

This inability to be able to finish thoughts without being interrupted is probably why I start blogging. Hmm. But, like a good Southern raised girl, I digressed, didn’t I?

The point is, cancer patients will usually ask for it if they need an actual answer. (Not always, however, and sadly, that is where it gets tricky.) When a cancer patient begins honestly expressing his or her fears, please, I beg of you, do NOT answer with those hollow platitudes like “Think positive” or “I’m sure it will be all right.” No, it is not alright and do not tell us how to think. No one is allowed to tell another how to think. Ever. Period. End of discussion.

Again, this is the time that YOU listen to the patient. If you think their thoughts are going in a dangerous direction, get professional help, for pete’s sake, do not tell them to just cheer up and think positive, you are so not helping if you do. If they are dangerously depressed, those trite comments are absolutely useless.

Don’t speak. Listen.

Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

9 thoughts on “Don’t Speak”

  1. The thing about listening is that it’s always the right thing to do and so easy too. Not sure why so many people, including me at times, struggle with it, but… Great post. I missed it the first time around, so thank you for the re-share.


    1. Thanks! What’s that old saying, like 51% of talking is listening, or listen to hear, not to respond? I wrote this post long ago, but I’m even more impatient these days with all the “what to say to cancer patients/grieving people”. Funny now little emphasis there is on letting the grieving actually do the talking. Yes, cancer patients can be self-absorbed–I am, and I was before (only child thing), but the “what should I say” question strikes me a little self absorbed too. Just a thought.


  2. I love this post! When people come at me with the “cancer cliches” I feel like they’re not really listening. My husband’s aunt is like that. With the “you’ll be fine” all through my treatment to yesterday when she said, “at least it’s over and you look good!” So not helpful!!!! I don’t want it to be a one way conversation all the time but I think more people could do with more listening and less speaking.


    1. Thanks. Honestly, the whole post can be applied to many things–not just cancer. Most people listen to respond–not to actually HEAR and understand what is being said. And I think that is evident in the whole “but what SHOULD I say to cancer patients that won’t make them go off” trend in articles I see. It’s like, wow, what a way to make it about you, not the cancer patient! But that is out culture, so maybe I should not have been so surprised by the amount of these pieces. grr.


  3. Personally, I prefer silence too but I didn’t realize that until I encountered some inappropriate people. I bet if every person said “the right thing” to me, I wouldn’t be complaining half of the time on my blog. There will always be people who say “the wrong things” but those comments never affect everyone the same way. Everyone is so different. I didn’t really stress inappropriate comments while I was going through my treatments — was too busy to pay attention (but one stuck with me, the one about “paying for something”). Post-treatment comments bother me more so I avoid talking about my cancer to most people in order to receive no comments. Because yes, no comments is better in my case.


    1. Hmmm, if everyone said the right thing to me would I have less to complain about on my blog? Thought provoking!! I’m not sure, because so much of what is said is just part of the overall culture of cancer I dislike–the “beat this thing”, “kick cancer’s ass” stuff that is just everywhere. Lately, EVERY little thing said, those cliches that people fall into, on the news, all media, as well as personal conversations, have made me so nuts I guess that is why I am really on my “don’t speak” trend right now. I just feel like, “I’ve heard and seen this all, twice, darling” with every little thing that happens in CancerLand lately.


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