Recently an acquaintance of mine, Kairol Rosenthal (author of Everything Changes: An Insiders Guide to Cancer in Your 20’s and 30’s) wrote a blog post on this very question. She asked her fellow cancer buddies if they like being called “strong.” Apparently this is a burning issue because the New York Times Well Blog picked up on her post and expanded it.
Overwhelmingly, cancer survivors say that they do not like to be called “strong” or to be told “God only gives you what you can handle.” One of my favorite comebacks for the latter statement comes from Mother Teresa who said, “I wish he didn’t trust me so much!”
Calling a cancer patient “strong” makes it seem like they are no longer entitled to crying into their pillows or screaming in helpless rage at their situation. Being told you have to be strong is a heck of a lot of pressure for someone who already has more than enough stress in their life. And don’t even get me started on the “you have to be strong for so-and-so because this is really hard on them…”! Excuse me, can we rewind and think about that for a second? I am not naive enough to believe that I am the only one affected by my cancer but come on! This deadly cellular anomaly is growing inside my body, affecting my life forever. I deserve to be a bit selfish and self-involved while going through this and if I'm not feeling up to fake smiling all the time then let me be!
This may be a difficult idea for those who haven’t been there done that to understand because they feel that they are saying the right things. Believe me, we appreciate the fact that the situation sucks and know that sometimes you don’t know what to say! Sometimes I don’t even know what to say and resort to snarky comebacks (usually only in my head because I’m trying to be polite). I even stated a top 15 not to say in an earlier post. There are so many faux pas in the “What not to say to a cancer patient” category (I've heard some unbelievably idiotic doozies in internet forums)… but the truth is, what you shouldn’t say to one person may be the exact right thing to say to another.
Usually, the old adage “honesty is the best policy” is true. I would much rather have a frank discussion with someone about how much the situation sucks or how I’m really feeling than getting the awkward polite statements. But that’s me, I’m unusually open about this whole ordeal and I don’t mind talking to anyone that really wants to know the truth of the matter. Just ask me!