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

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 I’ve had 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.

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!)

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.

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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43 thoughts to “Cancer Clunkers: When Words Sting, What Should You Do?”

  1. I’ve heard some of the clunkers you mention. right now I’m pissed at the people who call me “Sweetie, Honey, Sweetheart”. Usually I’ll say, “I’m not your__________.” But sometimes the person either doesn’t get it, or continues with those patronizing salutations. I hate it.

    1. Linda, Gosh, I hadn’t even thought of those. They aren’t even necessarily related to cancer talk. Just the other day, a clerk in a store called me hon. I sorta bristled instinctively for whatever reason. So, I hear you. Thanks for sharing.

    2. Linda , I hate to tell you this , when my hair turned gray(pre cancer) the “sweetie- Honey- Dearie stuff began. I resisted the urge to smack the young twits upside the head!!! Luckily on personnel at hospital and cancer center have either been warned or instinctively know better!!

    3. I think it depends on where you live. I moved from VERY liberal, progressive Madison, WI to Central Oregon, and was stunned the first time a waitress called me “Hon.” After living here awhile, I learned that it’s just the way clerks, gas station attendants, etc. talk in the Pacific Northwest and no insult or condescension is meant. Took me awhile to take the chip off of my shoulder, get used to it, and smile back.

  2. The list of clunkers is endless, so I won’t even go there. In my experience, most of them are well-intentioned, the rest, well… As for a response, initially after my diagnosis, I was mostly silent, except when the clunkers came from family and then I let them have it. Not ideal, but so it goes. Now I take a bit more measured “educational” approach. As in, “actually that’s not true” or “saying that is hurtful,” etc. I figure if a cancer patient can’t educate these people, who can?

    1. Janet, The clunker list is endless, isn’t it? My whole point is just because the comments are well-intended, does that mean the person hearing them has to keep quiet? That’s always the excuse I hear or read. People mean well. True, but…Everyone has different tolerance levels, and sometimes it varies day to day or even hour to hour! Sounds like you have figured out a good approach. And yeah, if a cancer patient can’t educate, who can? Good point. It’s important to go about it in a kind way when you can, of course. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on cancer clunkers.

      1. I do not like “your new normal”. This is not normal.
        I am adjusting to living with a disease with no cure.
        Reference to appreciating life more??? Nope wrong
        I have experienced tragic events, don’t assume I learned
        Anything from B/C dx. Except it’s more bad luck.
        Everything will be fine if you leave it up to God.
        Not necessarily. That is not my take on religion. Bad things
        Happen. Higher power beliefs help some to deal.

  3. My brother-in-law once said at a family gathering while I was undergoing treatment for stage 3 breast cancer: ‘I’m glad its you not me’! I was just so blown away by the comment at the time I couldn’t think of an appropriate response and what hurt me equally as much is that my husband didn’t come to my aid. Very disappointing.. but I guess if a cancer diagnosis isn’t already a slap in the face it does hi-light the toxic from the not so toxic people in your life!

    1. Charlotte, I’m sorry you were hurt by that comment. It was pretty insensitive. It’s understandable you felt hurt and disappointed. And yes, cancer sometimes reveals the true faces of those around us. Thank you for adding to this discussion.

    1. CC, Guess we have to make that determination each time it happens. It’s hard to know sometimes what’s the best approach. Depends on your energy and patience levels at the time and a whole bunch of other factors too. As you alluded to, sometimes it’s just not worth the bother. Or energy. Or whatever. Thanks for chiming in.

  4. It’s oddly the super-positive/wishful thinking comments that get to me. The “I just know this is gonna work out & everything will be okay” comments. (especially after I just got finished explaining that statistically, the prognosis is very poor) I just say ‘thanks’ – but I wanna scream : “You aren’t listening” !! I know some people just can’t handle the truth & wanna say good things to you… and that they just don’t know what else to say….but it doesn’t feel good,

    1. Kim, I don’t blame you for wanting to scream when you hear some of those comments. Remember, the free pass is optional. 🙂 Thank you for adding to this discussion.

  5. I’ll throw a twist into the mix-these were said to me by my primary care physician:
    – “sometimes it’s a heart attack, sometimes it’s cancer. We all gotta go from something”
    – “why are you upset? It’s only Stage I (it was actually stage II”)
    – “you’re like every other cancer patient-you just want it out NOW”

    Needless to say, he is no longer my PCP.

  6. Hi Nancy,
    It’s such a cancer related thing isn’t it? I think any phrase that starts with at least is when I have to brace myself. Mostly I ignore it because I don’t have energy to waste on them. I also know to avoid those who say this as they aren’t going to be able to be what you need them to be. Recently diagnosed with my fourth cancer after spinal surgery for a benign growth, people are stumped and so I say, i know it’s a car crash isn’t it, and they agree! What’s worse is if we minimise it ourselves and don’t give ourselves the time and space we need to grieve or feel guilty if we aren’t better yet. Ignore the at least a in others and yourself is my best advice and listen to your body and love it.

    1. Audrey, Yeah, those at least statements…talk about complete minimizers, and as you mentioned, sometimes we say them to ourselves. Your car crash analogy is a good one to use. Thank you for sharing your advice.

  7. Hi Nancy..good topic..

    When I was bald from chemo my daughter’s mother in law said to me “Now that you don’t have hair I can really see that your daughter looks so much like you”. I was dumb founded and walked away..furious no less..
    When I hear a clunker comment I sometimes, sarcastically, will say “Thanks for sharing”. It gets old fast listening to crap.

    1. Mary Ellen, Well, that comment must’ve been pretty unexpected. Sometimes people should keep thoughts unexpressed. You’re not the only one who turns to sarcasm for handling clunkers. Thank you for sharing.

  8. I had a single mastectomy with DIEP flap reconstruction and reduction in the other breast in Dec 2018. I was out at a gathering at the end of January and Someone said to me “look at you with the body of an 18yr old (I am 47)…and you did it the easy way”. I told them it was far from the easy way…they tried to explain they meant I didn’t have to go to the gym like they do and at that point I wanted to tell them to just stop talking. Ugh.

    1. Diane, Oh, good heavens. That comment was out of line on so many levels. Just stop talking, I kinda wish you had said that! Thank you for sharing a clunker you’ve heard.

  9. The three worst clunkers that I can remember were;

    a) So, what’s your prognosis? ( Seriously? I’ve just told you I have cancer and you want me to tell you I might die. When told that a person has cancer don’t ever EVER ask a question that puts the patient in a position where they are trying to comfort you. Sheesh).
    b) Why are you so upset, we’re offering you a cure (said by an intern when discussing chemo. Knowing there is no cure for cancer I immediately lost trust in him).
    c) You are going to get through this, you are so strong. ( so many hidden messages there. Buck up, don’t give in to yourself, crying, depression, and complaining are weaknesses…..etc. I really hated this one).

    I’m sure there were lots more clunkers but these are the ones that really must have hit a nerve with me since I so clearly remember them.

    1. Lennox, Thank you for sharing three stand-out clunkers you remember being said to you. And one by an intern, no less. Jeez. I don’t think anyone asked me about my prognosis, or if they did, they did it inadvertently by asking my husband. And yeah, the last one. Don’t get me started.

  10. Love love love this. I have heard & written about many of these. The worst (stupidest) one said to me was “Your hair will grow back. My teeth are all gone. I’m bald inside my mouth!” For real. Anymore, sarcasm is where I go with people when I just don’t have it in me to let it just roll off.

    1. Kimberly, Yeah, the hair comments are generally pretty unhelpful. Not sure I get the teeth and bald inside my mouth ones. Sarcasm seems to be a tool many of us use from time to time. Thank you for sharing some thoughts on clunkers.

  11. I wrote a post on this very well named topic called “you got this”
    Coming from the makers of “I’ll pray for you,” and the genesis of the name of my blog, “well, you could be hit by a bus.” Meaning because I know what I’ll die from I’m better off than if it were a runaway bus that’s got a fairly low probability of hitting anyone. I’m very tired of people coming up to me, even a woman in my cancer survivorship seminar last Thursday upon hearing I have stage four cancer, “you look GREAT,” (for someone with metastatic cancer) – I’d not ever gotten so many compliments on how GREAT I looked before. Sigh. It’s a long long list in that post. Some funny and some not so humorous, but all slightly biting.

    1. Ilene, Thank you for sharing the link. I’ll check it out. Btw, love the name of your blog! And gosh, that woman’s comment…sheesh.

  12. Hi Nancy and fellow followers. I had breast cancer in 2013, I had a mastectomy and MSTRAM reconstruction and was told that all lymph nodes were clear, they got such great margins and the DCIS had only invaded a minuscule amount of the duct walls that my prognosis was absolutely brilliant and they were classing my surgery as “curative”.

    Eighteen months ago we moved house and a few short months after the move, I had a painful lump come up next to my sternum, the same side the breast cancer had been. Most of last year was spent trying to figure out what it was, all biopsies kept coming back “inconclusive” and they didn’t believe it could possibly be a recurrence given the picture of my original cancer. Last summer I was told they were “quietly confident” it wasn’t cancer but they would monitor and repeat the PET scan in 3 months because they didn’t know what it actually was as they had never come across anything like it before.

    Well cutting a long story short, it transpired it was cancer, what they now think was a recurrence, in my chest wall. I had a full thickness en bloc chest wall resection and reconstruction followed by radiotherapy earlier this year and now it is back again in a lymph node by my clavicle.

    I am due to start another course of radiotherapy to the node next Monday but we were told last week that I have now crossed the line… and the aim of treatment has now shifted from being “curative” to being to “control” the cancer for as long as they can. My oncologist said that even if the next radiotherapy completely gets rid of this lymph node cancer, the expectation is that it will recur again, either in another lymph node or another organ; they just don’t know where or when that will be yet.

    As a retired nurse, this news was exactly what I was expecting to hear from the way things were panning out; so it didn’t come as a big shock and I am dealing with the news pretty well. all things considered!

    My husband had told our neighbour that my cancer was back in a lymph node and I was going to be having more radiotherapy. On next seeing me, she asked how I was and went on to say “well lets hope this is the last of it”. I told her we already knew that it wasn’t going to be and the expectation is that it will recur but that there will be other treatment options available to me and the aim now is to “control” it for as long as they can and it has been mentioned that chemo will probably be next on the agenda.

    The response I got back… “oh no, I’ve waited years to get a nice neighbour and now I’m going to lose you!” Well I’m really sorry you will lose the nice neighbour you have waited years to find but… hello…. one, that happens to be me and two I’m not intending on going anywhere just yet!!!

    I was so surprised, I couldn’t respond… initially I felt shocked but I know she meant it in a nice way so I’ve decided to see the humour in it now!

    1. Gail, First of all, I’m sorry to hear about both recurrences. That’s a lot to absorb. And your neighbor’s comment – jeez. She certainly wasn’t thinking before speaking. Good for you for deciding to see the humor in the situation. Some of us might not have been so kind. Good luck with your upcoming radiation. Hope all goes well. Thank you for sharing.

  13. I’m so sick of the excuse “People mean well.” We do not have to remain silent. It is not our job to make others feel better or more comfortable. Our job, if you want it, is to speak up, educate and enlighten. That is one power that has not been taken away from us.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

    1. 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.

  17. 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.

    1. 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.

  18. 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!

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