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Cancer Clunkers: When Words Sting, What Should You Do?

Following your cancer diagnosis, have you been asked completely inappropriate questions, been offered equally inappropriate, not-asked-for advice or been on the receiving end of crude or just weird comments?

Who hasn’t experienced this, right? 

Sometimes words sting. Cancer clunkers, that’s what I like to call crass comments.

Btw, I didn’t come up with the phrase cancer clunkers. Read a far better articulated piece on the origin (as far as I know) of this phrase by a fellow blogger titled, Klunkerland. Definitely worth a read.

And of course, we often hear words that sting when grieving too. Grief Clunkers. But that’s a different post.

You might want to read:  Things People Say at Funerals. Or:  Four Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving or Recently Been Diagnosed with Cancer

I’ve written about this topic before and sometimes figure, why bother to say more. But not everyone is where I am in this cancer maze. Or where you are.

For example, I had a message recently from a woman who confided that some in her family were saying what to her were insensitive things, minimizing her experience. Clearly, her feelings were hurt, and she was wondering what to do.

What to do – that’s what I want to talk about in this post. This is not a what to say or not to say post. It’s a “what do you do when you hear comments that bug you” post.

Usually, it’s assumed that people who say this stuff mean well, which is generally the case. And Cancer Havers certainly don’t want others tip-toeing around worrying all the time about what to say or not to say.

But when words that sting are said to you, this doesn’t mean you have to keep quiet, shrug them off and stew silently. No, it does not.

So, what should you do?

We’ll get to that, but first…

Here are a few Cancer Clunkers that have been said to me: 

Well, at least you got the good cancer.

Did they have to take ’em both off?

God never gives you more than you can handle.

At least you get a free boob job out of the deal, that’s kind of a nice perk.

You’re gonna go bigger, right?

Everything’s back to normal by now isn’t it?

And here are a few clunkers others have heard and shared:

You didn’t need chemo, so you’re lucky.

You must’ve had the easy chemo since you didn’t even lose your hair.

Chemo’s not that bad now days is it?

Lucky you, you only had to have a lumpectomy.

I hear radiation is easy.

Funny, you don’t look sick.

Breast cancer? But you’re a man. 

Breast cancer is preventable these days isn’t it, what happened?

You must have done something to cause your cancer (or cause it to recur).

Did you forget to have your mammogram?

You’ll surely beat this if you just stay positive and fight hard. (Can you imagine hearing this one when you’re Stage IV?)

When will you finish treatment? (And yes, this is said to stage IV patients. Talk about a clunker!)

You’ll be fine.

And the absolute prize clunker of them all:

People don’t die from breast cancer anymore do they? 

I’m guessing you get my drift.

Sometimes it’s easier to remain silent and let crazy, half-baked comments slide right past you. Sometimes  you’re feeling too vulnerable (or too tired) to speak up. It’s easier, at least in the moment, to keep quiet.

But like so many times, easier isn’t always better. Besides keeping quiet and stuffing down feelings takes energy too, and who in the throws of cancer has energy to spare for stuffing down and pretending?

Of course, we all pretend sometimes because we have to, but this isn’t about those times.

It also should be noted that most people do rise to the occasion and offer wonderful words of support. Those people and their words are gems. Yes, gems.

But what should you do when words sting?

Should you grant that free pass?

I could go on and on and say things like, it depends on the person, the situation and so on. But, I think we all know that. And I feel like being brief today. I know, go figure.

If someone says something you feel is out of line, you get to handle it your way. YOU are in control.

The way I see it, you basically have the following options:

Ignore. Inform, educate, enlighten. Or just let it rip. You decide. But you definitely do not have to keep quiet.

Free passes are optional. (Really, they are.)

Share a cancer or a grief clunker you’ve heard.

How do you generally respond to cancer/grief clunkers?

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Cancer Clunkers: When Words Sting, What Should You Do? #cancer #breastcancer #mastectomy #wordsmatter #cancerlanguage

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Wednesday 27th of April 2022

One family member responded to my outline of my treatment and surgery with “Bring it on!!!!!”


Thursday 28th of April 2022

Nelly, Really? Easy for her to say, though I'm sure she meant well. Still...


Wednesday 27th of April 2022

Plus I also had a brain tumour and both the day before and the day after I had 7 hour brain surgery he sent me photos of himself with bruises and blood on his face from walking into something…


Wednesday 27th of April 2022

2 family members at separate times. “I shouldn’t complain to you because your life sucks”. What? It’s my life and I love it. Hate cancer? Yes!!! Also “you’re such a warrior “ again. I’m not. I’m a battlefield.


Thursday 28th of April 2022

Julia, I hear you. Those comments must've stung for sure.


Wednesday 27th of April 2022

There are a lot of these with being pregnant and after pregnancy too. While pregnant I got a lot of, "You don't look pregnant."

Now I get a lot of, "Well, you are totally back to normal." I'm glad I look pretty "normal" but that doesn't mean I feel normal. People mean well, haha.

With breast cancer, I've heard a lot of, "She will be fine." Implying breast cancer is not the bad kind of cancer.


Thursday 28th of April 2022

Lindsay, Yeah, your comment is a good reminder that are some pretty good clunkers that get said about many things, including pregnancy. People do usually mean well, but I still say, depending on the person and situation, it's okay to let the person know their comment isn't helpful, what you need to hear right now, or whatever. People really need to think more before speaking!

Joanne T

Tuesday 7th of July 2020

The worst clunker I ever had was from a coworker, who happened to be in the department that I supervised. I was retiring right before I started my chemo after 39 years with the company. My last day in the office she said to me, "Are you scared?" No, not in a gentle, caring question type way, but with a big smile on her face and a "I'd love to hear you are scared and dreading this" manner. I had just experienced a double mastectomy too! That mean comment has never left me two years later. People can be very cruel. And to answer her now, I say S**T YEAH!


Friday 22nd of May 2020

I'm with Linda, I hate all the condescending names...Honey, dearie, sweetie etc, Also the "you are so strong" ,,, The first case, if I am up to it, I repeat it back to them . "Thank you DEARIE." That usually gets wide eyes. I do not know if it sinks in. The you are so strong one is just a lost cause. They are trying to reassure thenselves as well as you. Interesting posts.


Friday 22nd of May 2020

Betty, I don't like those sort of condescending names either. Hearing them literally makes me cringe. I like how you repeat them back when you feel up to it. I imagine it sinks in sometimes and other times not so much! I think you're spot on about some people trying to reassure themselves. Thanks for sharing, Betty. Always good to hear from you.

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