Coping With Emotions

Insensitive Friends and Your Cancer Diagnosis

Ignorance and insensitivity go hand in hand. Once your insensitive friends understand why these comments hurt, things should get better.

When you’re first diagnosed with cancer, you brace yourself for feeling sick, for the financial fallout and for the fatigue, but it may not occur to you to prepare for insensitive friends and family members. After all, your friends and family are your support group, the people you’re counting on to raise you up when you feel low — so when they say insensitive things, it may catch you off guard. There’s no good way to prepare yourself for that experience, but there are ways you can communicate with your loved ones to make sure they understand their missteps.

Bringing Up Death

This is a common topic of conversation when cancer is brought up, because most people know someone touched by cancer. People will mention someone they know who died from cancer, not realizing the impact that kind of statement might have on you. Chances are good they didn’t even realize their comments and attitudes were hurtful. When you’re worried about whether or not you’ll survive, you’d rather not be told about other people who have died, especially in a small talk situation. Let this person know it’s an inappropriate topic by reminding him you’d rather focus on getting better, not dying.

Implying You Caused Your Cancer

One of the things people with cancer encounter frequently is the suggestion that they have somehow caused their cancer. Cancer is complex; everyone deals in likelihoods more than absolutes when it comes to talking about cause, treatment or prognosis of a cancer diagnosis. Suggesting that someone did something to cause or deserve cancer is unkind, and not at all helpful. This kind of comment does nothing to help the person with cancer to heal, and nobody certainly deserves cancer. If you encounter a comment like this, gently tell the person that medical professionals are the only ones qualified to discuss your diagnosis.

Minimizing Your Experience

There are many other ways in which people can be insensitive: minimizing the cancer experience by suggesting that your cancer is not so bad; friends or family members who will make your cancer all about them; incessant treatment recommendations from people who aren’t on your medical team; or suggesting that having a bad day or a negative thought will negatively affect your prognosis. These are all instances of inappropriate behavior when it comes to your cancer care. Be clear about your boundaries, and let people know when they’ve overstepped them. You may have to have longer conversations about healthy and appropriate ways of discussing your cancer, and types of comments you welcome and frown upon. For instance, some people enjoy joking about their cancer, while others would rather not discuss it at all.

It can be hard to understand why people make these kinds of comments. Why would anyone say something so unhelpful or even hurtful? The truth is your friends and family are probably speaking without thinking, blurting something out just to contribute to the conversation, rather than thoughtfully contributing supportive comments. If you can calmly and gently explain the way their comments have affected you, they’re likely to consider the impact of what they say in the future. And if they don’t, you may have to take some distance from them to protect your own well-being.

Cancer is difficult enough without hurtful comments from insensitive friends, but a little grace on your part, and a little understanding on theirs, can help smooth over these communication bumps. Your friends may become better allies to you once they start to understand why these comments hurt.

If you need emotional support during your cancer treatment, UVA Cancer Center has resources for you.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley