Advice for friends and families: How not to say the wrong thing.

A friend has just sent me a link to a brilliant article from the LA Times which articulates a clever way of never saying the wrong thing to a person in crisis (or to other people affected by it). I won’t try to explain it all here, but do take a look.

This kind of thing should be instinctive, but I certanly wish some of my family members had had this model in mind during my illness and treatment!

This is really good. Like you say, it should always be instinctive, but it isn't, and I think sometimes people say things genuinely from a place of wanting to help, but it is actually about either their own feelings about the situation (often fear) or about their own problems. I think this article also applies to people going through the grieving process - obviously a completely natural thing to go through after you've had cancer - quite a few people seem to want to help you by 'fixing' how you feel, rather than by just letting you talk. 

Annabel. x


This is great! Wish I could have sent it out a few weeks ago. I went out for dinner with two friends 3 days before surgery and neither of them even asked how I was. Not sure I will ever forget that.

Oh dear, they probably congratulated themselves afterwards for not bringing the subject up and not upsetting you. People are remarkably dense sometimes.

I know what you mean about not forgetting. I feel that my best friend basically dropped me while I was ill, probably because she was finding it all too hard to cope with. I understand it to some extent but feel hurt and don’t think our friendship will ever be quite the same. On the plus side, there are other people who weren’t so close who really stepped up and it meant so much to me. I definitely hope I can pay that kindness forward.

An older friend said to me recently that it’s only when you’ve been through horrible times yourself that really know what it feels like and how important the small gestures of support are. She said that one of the small benefits of getting older is that unfortunately over time more and more of your circle have had those experiences and so your relationships become richer and more caring. I hope she’s right.

You certainly do find out the meaning of friendship when you get cancer, don't you! I had a couple of people just disappear into the ether. There are other people to whom I am significantly closer than I was before I was diagnosed, simply because they really stepped up when it mattered the most. And then there are those people whom I have known for years and years who were there because that's just what we do for each other and it has become just another thing that we've gone through and is woven into the fabric of a lifelong friendship. It can be very heartening to really realise the meaning of friendship and love, but as you say, can also be very disappointing when people really don't react well, especially if they are close. I am a very solid, reliable person and have helped out my in-laws and my brother-in-law on so many things over the years, including complicated legal stuff at times that has cost me large amounts of time and money, and yet all I got from my brother-in-law was a card that said 'Keep your chin up'. That was it. Not a phone call, not an email, no offers of help, no visits. Nothing. And when my in-laws came down the night before I went into hospital, they spent the entire evening talking about people they knew who'd died of cancer, people who thought they were cured but as it turned out, they weren't, and they then proceeded to say what a pain it was that they'd had to come down, because the journey was such a faff in the Winter. My husband had already politely warned them part of the way through the evening, but by that point I'd absolutely had enough and said something like, "Yeah, you're right, it's really inconvenient, me getting cancer in the Winter - cancer's much better in the Summer when you've got the light evenings." My father-in-law said, "Well, there's no need to be like that. All I'm saying is that it's difficult FOR US, to be upsetting our plans like this." I threw them out (which I don't think I would have had the confidence to do, previously) and my husband later demanded an apology from them. They were bound to be upset that I had cancer, I accept that, but their response was so self-absorbed that I was just staggered. There is now no rift or anything as dramatic as that between us, but I have to confess, I find it difficult to care very much about them. That might sound harsh, but I can't help it, that's how I feel about it. I think like you say, Jo, you never really forget that kind of thing! 

I’m so glad it’s not just me! My own brother didn’t send a card or phone or anything. He did come down last night, but when I really needed him he wasn’t there. I’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness of family and friends I really have, but unfortunately it’s the things that didn’t happen which have upset me more than anything.

I don’t want to be bitter. But I know I will be a better person to others suffering now having been through it myself. All it takes is a simple “How are you today?”. A friend who has lost her baby, father, cat and both parents-in-law all the past 12 months has barely left my side since I was diagnosed.

Rant over!

It's definitely not just you, Jo. I've got a friend who's husband had leukemia a couple of years ago and she said the same thing - some people you've known for years just disappear, whereas other people who you might only know to say hello to, become very close. Another friend of mine who had testicular cancer a few years ago said some people actually crossed the street to avoid him.

I had a similar thing to you as well with a friend of mine - in the previous year she'd had an operation, her husband walk out on her and basically abandon their children, a friend of hers commited suicide and her father had a heart attack on a ski slope. About a week before I was diagnosed we were sitting at her kitchen table saying, "Now, we just need things to be quiet for a while." Talk about tempting fate!! She was exhausted and needed a rest, but she never left my side. She was there, and there and there - for anything and everything all of the time not only for me, but for my husband and daughter as well. Amazing. I really don't know what I would have done without her. I'll never be able to thank her enough. Like you say, as for those other people, it's not really a question of bitterness. I feel disappointed, but on the other hand, if that's what they're like then I'd rather know so I don't waste my time on them! One friend said to me, "Don't worry, they'll come back after a while." I don't want them 'back'. At one of the most difficult, frightening and challenging moments in my life, they chose not to be there - I simply have no interest in them anymore. 


p.s. Nothing wrong with a good rant - sometimes it's the only way! ;-) x

It is amazing how many people avoid you when they know you have cancer.  It must be such a struggle to know what to say - I've never known anyone with cancer and probably wouldn't have known what to say either so can understand.  But I would rather they said something than nothing at all and avoid the issue, well most of the time :0)  I am better armed now and hopefully can provide support to others in a similar situation in future, and hopefully be a better friend.

I had an old friend who told me a radical hysterectomy was so dramatic and surely there must be another option open to me.  I said NO I have cancer.  She then went on to tell me how my hormones would be all over the place afterwards and how hormones really define and affect us as people so I would be a complete mess.  Plus how on earth would I be able to have sex if part of my vagina was removed.  Surely it would never be the same.  THANKS FOR THAT, really needed in the run up to my op! I ended the call telling her that if I didn't have the op I would DIE - sex is really the least of my worries.  I remind myself that she didn't mean to upset me and laughed it off but combined with no other calls or catch ups I will never feel the same about her again.  Such a shame that illness can break friendships, although it can obviously make stronger friendships for the future too.

I will never forget people's kindness to me in my deepest darkest times.... so appreciated.


Kiss Wish there was a 'like' button on here

Love this thread! I felt so alone and deserted by friends and family during my cancer, mostly family. I was lucky though that my aunt and uncle who I hadn't spoken to in years due to my mum disowning them, stepped up and gave me as much help and support as I needed. At the time I really wanted my mum and dad but now I honestly don't think my "parents" could of done anything more than they did. My aunt was with me evry week before my chemo and stayed at my house untill I returned, she would joke with me that I was going to the hairdressers or beautician which really helped with how terrified I was feeling. My friends disappeared and an old friend who I had hardly spoken to in years came round every week for lunch as I couldn't get out the house after my op. She was fantastic and asked questions about my treatments, pains and recovery. She never tried to avoid me or the issues which I was facing.

My relationship with my mum and dad has never been the same or that with my brothers and sisters. I know it never will be. My mum asked for forgivness two years ago and I did forgive her but reminded her I will never forget or ask for her help again as she let me down in the biggest way possible n it wrecked our bond.

To those who did provide support and comfort though, I owe them so much and only hope evry1 who has to deal with cancer has at least one person to provide them with what they need to ease some of the confusion or tension they are feeling xxx

I've just found this, it's a brilliant resource. Thank you for sharing!

Wonderful thread, has made me feel so much better about the very different ways friends and family reacted. I strangely find one of the worst things said to me is 'don't worry, you will be alright'. It is a simple sentence that puts my blood pressure up in seconds! It is sometimes linked with my sister, cousin neighbour had cervical cancer and 'she's fine now'. I know on the whole people mean well, and heaven help me, I have probably said such stupid things in the past to people without realising how they impact. I am definitely a more sensitive and a hopefully sympathetic person for being on this

I hate "You're strong" or "Be strong and kick cancer's butt..." I am physically and emotionally vulnerable right then and, although they mean well, it is as if they are saying to me "suck it up because this makes me feel uncomfortable."