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Words Matter

BY SALLY SHERMAN
Survivor, Breast Cancer
elephantsandtea.com
October 25, 2023

Words matter.

The problem is that most people don’t really know what to say.

When I got diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer at age 35, I quickly learned that when people are at a loss for words, they revert to the old clichés.

“You’re so brave.” “You’re an inspiration.” “You’re so strong!”

There is nothing inherently wrong with these words. I think they’re said with very good intentions. And I was blessed to be surrounded by people who loved me and were trying to lift me up by using these phrases. Before I had cancer myself, I’m sure I would have said all the same things.

But when I was going through treatment, I never felt brave, or inspiring, or strong. As a mom of two little kids, I was determined to get through the treatment as best I could, but it all felt so out of my control. After the first twelve weeks of chemo, I found out my tumors didn’t shrink as much as the doctors were hoping, so I went on to have another eight weeks of an even stronger chemo. I felt defeated and scared, not brave.

I was called inspiring because I was sharing my story openly, on a blog I created for family and friends. But I was really just trying to process everything, and writing about it helped me to do that. Plus, it felt like a practical way to keep my family and friends updated. But I didn’t want to be an inspiration.

I was called strong because I kept going with chemo, then surgery, then radiation, then immunotherapy—all during the height of the pandemic. I didn’t feel strong though. I felt weak and exhausted.

I didn’t go out looking for compliments, and I resented the fact that I had to hear them in the first place. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Hey, you know what would be fun? I’m going to get cancer, document my ‘journey’ on a blog, and show how strong I am to the world! I’m going to be so brave!”

What other option did I have? Every time I looked at my husband, my four-year-old boy, and my baby girl, I reminded myself that I had to keep going for them. For our family.

It’s like when you see a news segment on TV about some guy who saves a little kid from a burning building. The newscaster always calls that guy a hero, and the guy always says, “Thank you, but I don’t feel like a hero; I did what anybody else would have done in that situation.”

I did what anyone else would have done. I didn’t feel like I had a choice NOT to be brave. What would that even look like? Throwing a tantrum on the way to chemo? (Actually, I may have done that once or twice.) Crying at the oncologist’s office? (Yep, did that too.) Lying in bed, too depressed to get up some days? (Definitely.) Now that I think about it, that was all pretty brave. I may not have felt brave, but I kept going as best I could.

But I didn’t have a choice, which I think is why that word bothers me so much.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m still here, currently no evidence of disease, two years after treatment. But there are so many cancer patients who were just as brave and strong and inspirational, and they didn’t survive. It wasn’t anything they did wrong. Many times after someone’s death, it’s reported that the person “lost their battle to cancer.” Cancer kills. It takes people too soon. It’s awful. I know that it’s hard to hear about, and it’s depressing. Nobody wants to read an obituary that says, “Cancer killed Mr. A.” It’s too harsh, right? It may feel more comfortable to use the euphemism, but saying that somebody lost their battle to cancer makes it seem like if the person just fought harder, that the outcome could have been different. And it’s just not true, or fair.

I always assumed that after near-death experiences people are happy and grateful afterward. So, after my last day of treatment, I was blindsided by the anxiety and depression I felt. People kept saying, “You must be so excited to be done with treatment!” or, “You must be so happy now that things can get back to normal!”

I know they meant well, trying to make conversation. But, normal? I kept looking around for normal life, but I couldn’t find it anywhere.

I couldn’t get back to normal, or look on the bright side, or enjoy every moment, or live life to the fullest—like all the clichés make us believe. After 15 months of treatment, I was really struggling. I felt like a failure when I was unhappy. I already went through cancer treatment; why did I also have to achieve some unattainable perspective on life? Didn’t I earn the right to be cynical, negative, and pissed off? Why did I have to be happier and more optimistic than everybody else?

What helped me the most during and after treatment was when people could acknowledge how hard things were for me. Believe it or not, I think some of the most powerful words I heard were, “Well, this sucks.” It made me laugh, for one thing, and I found that humor really helped me along the way. I didn’t need anyone to say the perfect thing—I just needed people to listen, and validate my feelings.

It also really helped when people reached out about things other than cancer. I loved when friends would tell me about the funny thing their kid said, or send me the cute video of their kitten, or talk to me about the latest episode of the show they watched. They reminded me that there was more to life than just the cancer world. It got me out of my own head, and I appreciated it so much.

My cancer patient perspective on certain words and phrases has changed my entire outlook on how I talk with other people now. When others are going through tough times, no matter what the situation may be, I try not to assume how they’re feeling. It’s hard though, isn’t it? Emotions are messy. I was in denial when people expected me to be sad. I was depressed when people expected me to be happy. So many conflicting feelings of joy and guilt, fear and determination, sadness and gratitude.

I’ve started to wonder which words and phrases I use with other people that may unintentionally upset them. We just don’t know if we haven’t been in other people’s shoes. So, I’ve given up trying to find the perfect words. Nothing we say can really make a bad situation better. I think the best we can do is acknowledge that what they’re going through is hard and that they’re not alone. I think it’s connection and love that really makes an impact, not the words themselves.