Book review: “Cancer Etiquette” (Part 1)

footmouthI was talking to someone who had a device that he claimed could heal diseases (including cancer).

Mid-way through, he said to me:  “you know, we’re all going to die some day, so that might help you to face what you’ve got.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Yes, we’re all going to die someday, but mate, you’re not the one with cancer, and not the one with one foot (metaphorically) in the grave.  And cancer is not a walk in the park.

I felt his good intentions, but it wasn’t a level playing field, and until someone has experienced and gone through a life-threatening diagnosis, there’s no way they can say something like “we’re all going to die someday” without sounding patronising and a twat.

Philosophy is all very well when you don’t have to live it.  Death is not an abstraction to those who face it!

He’s not the only person to trot out that platitude.  A homeopath I consulted the same thing.  I felt my blood turn cold and I lost trust in this man who was supposed to be a professional.  I felt like someone about to experience a long drop on a roller coaster, while listening to a commentary given by someone who had seen a movie and read a book on the ride and thought it made him the expert.

Words can, and do harm people.  And words can, and do heal people.  Fear and ignorance, impulsive words, perhaps poor attempts to cheer the cancer patient up, are delivered unthinkingly and are deeply damaging.

Which brings me to the subject of this post, two books I’ve read on what to say, and what not to say, to people who have cancer.

The books are:  “Cancer Etiquette” by Rosanne Kalick and “The Etiquette of Illness” by Susan P. Halpern.

Cancer Etiquette by Rosanne Kalick

The author herself went through two bouts of cancer.  This book is based on her own experiences of behavioural boo-boos, as well as interviews with patients and caregivers.  The more she investigated, she more she realised that most people do not know what to say or do when someone they know have cancer.

Some of her own personal experiences are painful:  for example, when first diagnosed, she went into a library and the librarian there who knew she had cancer came up to her and told her how wonderful being in a hospice was.  The author hadn’t even started treatment!

Another friend came up to her and said:  “Don’t you know you’re ruining everyone’s Thanksgiving?”.  Perhaps it was an inept effort to be funny, or cheer the author up.  But it failed dismally.

Other faux pas experienced by other patients:

– a newly-diagnosed woman hears her friends say:  “I know how you must be feeling.  My sisters had cancer.  Neither of them made it.”

– a woman who sent her daughter (who had breast cancer) a sympathy card with the word “Goodbye” in it.

– a young woman who got the response:  “Oh my, what’s your husband going to do without you?”

– or the 12-year-old boy who had a photo taken with Andre Agassi, his mother showed the photo around and got the comment from a friend:  “It almost makes it worth getting leukaemia, doesn’t it?”  Really?

The number of examples is endless and horrifying in their insensitivity.

If you are going to a job interview, don’t you prepare for what might be asked, and what you are going to say?

Yet when it comes to cancer, people just open their mouths and say the most thoughtless and outrageous things.

So what should you say (or not say) to someone who has cancer?

… tune in to Part 2 for some tips.


Thank you to everyone who has read this post.  This topic is something very close to my heart.  I have opened the comments section for this post.

Have you any experiences to share?  

Or comments to add?  

Have you any humorous and diplomatic ways of dealing with awkward comments?

Please feel free to share your experiences.  You will be helping a lot of people who read this blog.

One response

  1. Pingback: What to say/what not to say to someone with cancer … 6 characters in search of a T-shirt! | BisforBananasCisforCancer

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