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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 people 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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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.

Meredith Clark

Wednesday 20th of May 2020

After my Stage 4 diagnosis a year ago, I sent a letter to my brothers and sisters because I had heard all the clunkers during/after two earlier, separate mastectomies. Here's an excerpt:

"I’m not sure how you can help right now, other than honor the following requests: Please do not tell me to “Hang in there.” I’m already doing that the best I can. The phrase is meaningless and I hate it.

Do not tell me to “Keep a positive attitude.” I am standing at the doorway to hell and am entitled to have some negative emotions sometimes.

I do not want to hear “You’re strong and you will get through this.” I’m 76 now and not so strong. I will endure this as long as possible."

Then I told them what was appropriate to say and do. This worked. They have learned from, and respected, my requests.


Friday 22nd of May 2020

Meredith, Good for you for letting them know what you needed and did not need to hear from them. They probably appreciated your candor and you felt/feel better too letting them know where you stand on that stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Lise W.

Wednesday 20th of May 2020

So many clunkers too little time (even that phrase has taken on a diff. meaning for me in Metastatic Land!). Here's 3 that stuck out for me:

1. My (toxic, Narcissistic) M-I-L when we told her my BC was not curable and had spread to my bones/liver: "Well, everything happens for a reason." (What possible reason could there be????!! Now a chance for a better woman for her son????)

2. My current oncologist (excellent clinician but has appalling bedside manner) when I was upset: "Oh for heaven's sake, it's not going to kill you tomorrow.". (Thanks, I feel so much better now. )

3. (Ex) Friend from a Chronic Pain Support Group when I told her of my diagnosis, in an accusing tone: "Well, you know cancer's acidic..." (Are you saying I'm to blame for my cancer because I didn't follow a certain diet???!! )

Like many of you who commented, I am SICK of giving these people a pass and thinking they mean well. Sometimes people slip up or don't say the right thing but I have also found that the ones who say the worst things or "should on us" (love that one, makes me smile!) tend not to own it or make amends even when I've chosen to explain to them the impact their words had. My friends who told me they weren't sure what to say/do and those who asked me what would help me are the ones who made less blunders. Thank you for offering us a place to open up and share. It helps me feel less alone knowing you are all out there.


Friday 22nd of May 2020

Lise, I'm glad it helps to open up here. You're definitely not alone. Thank you for sharing.

Meredith Clark

Wednesday 20th of May 2020

Here's the right place to get THIS off my chest (oops, there's nothing there!). After a year of Ibrance my hair is coming out quite rapidly. I showed my partner my hair brush and he said "Don't worry about it. You can wear a wig." I stood silent for a few moments, then told him "All I wanted was some sympathy." No response so I walked away.


Friday 22nd of May 2020

Meredith, It's so hard, isn't it?

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