“Everything happens for a reason.”
Those words sting. They are applied liberally by well-meaning friends and family to situations which don’t make any sense. They’re used as a coping mechanism in situations where people feel helpless and scared. They’re a cop-out wherein you separate yourself from having to emotionally invest in the individual experiencing the trauma.
Those words may make you feel better, but it’s at my expense.
Would you say that to someone whose newborn baby was born with a terrible birth defect? Someone whose newly-licensed teenager was in a horrific car accident? Someone whose husband died, leaving behind small children? Someone’s friend who committed suicide?
The only purpose behind that sentiment is reassurance. That the universe somehow makes sense. That your religion remains intact. The thoughtless phrase flung in my direction implies that I deserve it, that something good will come from it. Sometimes people die at 32 years old at the mercy of stage 4 breast cancer, like my friend Lindsay did, and nothing good comes from it. Sometimes good things may happen again on the other, stronger, healthier side. But regardless of what happens after cancer, I would never wish the physically-draining, life-changing, mentally-maddening, time-sucking, body-altering process on anyone. Terrible things happen to good people, and sometimes there is no reason at all for it. Sometimes, there is no explanation.
Answering that I was not genetically pre-disposed was typically followed up with intrusive inquisition about my pre-cancer health, diet, activity level, and substance participation. Which all insinuates it must have been something I did. I will always wonder why it happened to me and not the guy filling his grocery cart with processed food. How it snuck into my home, cleaned with essential oils and vinegar. How it crept like a ninja into my body, nourished with organic foods and exercise. How it penetrated my skin, slathered with non-toxic personal products. How it took root and grew in my breast while I was nursing my 18-month-old.
I may allow my experiences to guide my decisions in the future, but that’s simply personal growth. Most human beings practice this from lessons learned, mistakes made, and trials overcome. I imagine the possibility of death may accelerate one’s decisiveness and lengthen the metaphoric leap one is willing to take. But I don’t think that my near-death tragedy somehow granted me the clarity to live life with a newfound purpose that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. I could have gone skydiving instead. Sometimes I feel that I’ve somehow become a spokesperson for life, and that is exhausting. We just want to return to our “normal” lives.
You’re allowed to not know what to say. Before I had cancer, I’m not sure I did either. Just admit it. Your friend/family/loved one will understand. From collective experience, here’s a quick reference guide of stupid things NOT to say to someone with cancer:
But your hair grew back, aren’t you done?
You have cancer? You should try this thing I read about on the internet where you grind up this rare plant that only grows in the emergent layer of the Amazon rain forest and then mix it with cannabis oil and make an enema…
Get the fuck out of my house, Becky.
They actually do have a cure for cancer but aren’t releasing it because if all of the cancer was cured then the pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t make so much money.
You probably believe in the lochness monster too.
Cancer isn’t as hard as it used to be.
Right, now they apply numbing spray to your skin before they shove the needle into your port and pump you full of chemicals that make your hair fall out and cause permanent nerve damage.
Oh, that’s the good kind of cancer, right? I mean, the one they can cure?
Please read a book.
Well, it could always be worse.
Please tell me all of the ways because I haven’t thought enough about horrible things lately.
Oh, we didn’t think you could so we didn’t ask you to come along.
Invite me! Even if I can’t come, invite me so I don’t feel like I’ve fallen off the face of the earth. And then SnapChat that shit to me.
When God closes a door, he opens a window.
I’m sure God has better things to do than be my personal architect.
God has a plan!
Well that shit’s fucked up then.
I’ve always wanted to shave my head.
Lucky me! Sure I have no choice in this but I’ll wear your teenage rebellion badge proudly!
It’s only hair, and it will grow back.
Thanks, you’ve just minimized the trauma of wearing cancer on the outside for everyone to see. And also made me feel shallow for worrying about a seemingly superficial thing. Some chemotherapy prevents hair regrowth. Some women have bald patches when their hair grows back in. Some die bald.
Wow, you look terrible.
Thanks, I have cancer! What’s your excuse?
But you look so healthy!
You’re right, it was just probably some indigestion from something I ate.
If anyone can beat this, you can.
But what if I don’t? That’s an incredibly high pedestal to be placed upon without any kind of guarantee I won’t fall.
Congratulations! You’re done!
Cancer doesn’t end when treatment ends. It’s really weird to suddenly stop seeing the people who have cared for you on a regular basis, to stop going to a place that’s oddly become a second home, even though you never wanted to spend time in an infusion center, however fucked up that may be. There was a plan, a routine, a schedule, something to actively fix in a tangible way… And then you think, now what? There’s a whole process of re-acclimating to the life you had before you had cancer. And sometimes it doesn’t work. And some things don’t fit back together anymore. And you’re changed forever, never able to go back to the person you were. And you’ve got to chip away at the mountain of emotional residue. And you feel more fragile. And you’re more reliant on prescriptions because you can’t stop wondering if the cancer will come back. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to celebrate.
When will you be all better?
Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from where it first started to another part of the body. A person with late-stage cancer will never be “all better.”
They cure cancer all the time now!
Metastatic cancer has no cure.
Bitch, please, that’s what I’ve been doing.
This is a really amazing journey you’ve been on.
I haven’t been on vacation.
I don’t know if I can handle it.
We’re probably not real friends.
It’s nothing compared to what you are going through.
Distraction can be welcome, and hiding what you’re going through makes me feel like I’m not participating in your life. If we’re friends, I care about you and want to know what’s going on with you!
I’m really sorry your friend lost her battle.
Listen, she was triumphant right up to the very end, she didn’t lose anything. She helped so many other young women around her who had cancer. She was brave and full of grace and was fucking robbed of the rest of her life.
God never gives you more than you can handle.
And now you’re dead to me.
And the worst offender: (A person) I know had cancer… they died.
Seriously?!?! Go fuck yourself.
Here are things not to say randomly to strangers, because you never know what they’re dealing with in life.
Oh you have much shorter hair than in your ID, what made you get it cut?
Look lady, I just want to drink some wine. Have a look at my birth date and get on with it.
Is that your only child? Don’t you want to have more children? Why not?
Maybe I want to have more children but cannot, due to infertility. Maybe I have been shot up with countless hormone injections and my partner and I have fucked like bunnies in the hopes of getting pregnant. Maybe the minuscule window which allowed for my decision-making process of whether or not to freeze my eggs was a complicated one which involved delaying treatment, dangerously raising my estrogen levels as part of the procedure, and forking over an insane amount of money which ultimately may or may not work. Maybe the behavior of my only child has greatly influenced my decision to not have another. In any case, it’s more likely to ruin someone’s perfectly good day bringing up a sensitive subject instead of opting for the ‘ol standby weather forecast commentary.
Here’s a whole bunch of things to say instead that won’t make you sound like a heartless asshole!
I’m sorry you’re going through this.
Sometimes a simple acknowledgement really helps.
This must be really hard for you.
I don’t really know what to say.
It’s OK for you to be honest about how you’re feeling. We don’t expect you to be an expert in dealing with this really tough situation.
This fucking sucks.
I’m thinking of you.
Do you need a lift home from chemo?
Specific offers of help are much better than general “I’m here if you need me” type statements. We’ll actually take you up on them, and they will genuinely make a difference.
If you need a laugh right now, you should watch…
Netflix recommendations are invaluable for days when we can’t get off the couch or resting from treatment.
What can I do?
How can I help improve your day today?
Can I bring you some dinner?
Take you to a movie?
Clean your house?
Watch your kids?
Walk your dogs?
Help you organize all of the paperwork?
Drive you to an appointment?
Take you out when you’re feeling up to it?
Fold your laundry?
Take you to a deserted parking lot where you can scream four-letter words?
Sometimes all we need is for you to listen to the scary stuff we can’t believe we’re saying out loud. And to not imply that it happened for a larger-than-life, blockbuster feature film, God’s master plan kind of purpose.
[Published on Medium 11.22.17]