Thoughtless Cancer Compliments

by Brian English

One of the more difficult aspects of cancer is that the physical changes caused by the treatment can cause you to lose what might be called your “medical anonymity.” Hair loss. Weight loss. Weight gain. Skin lesions, Scars … these outward signs of your cancer battle are often obvious to one and all.

Thoughtless Cancer Compliments

Except when they aren’t.

“I ran into an acquaintance at my local Starbucks,” writes WhatNexter ShortCuts. “Upon learning about my cancer returning, she said, ‘Well, you look great without hair,’ as she flipped her over-done, blonde locks in my face.”

While cancer can turn a patient’s life upside down, everyone else around them are still locked into the daily concerns of their own lives, including things that have become – to cancer patients – insignificant.

This can often lead patients to endure a barrage of blithe comments from people. Which can be tough to take – even if the person making the unintentionally offensive or hurtful comment didn’t mean it.

But this phenomenon isn’t reserved simply for cancer patients; their loved ones experience it, too. After all, cancer impacts an entire family – not just the patient. And the resulting chaos can cause caregivers undergo physical changes, too. Incredible stress, sleeplessness, and nearly nonstop worry absolutely takes its toll.

Ummm Thanks

Writer Jennifer Liebrum found a compliment so unsettling that it inspired her to pen a piece for the New York Times “Well” blog. Liebrum writes that the stress of her 12-year-old daughter Devon’s treatment for myeloid leukemia caused her to lose weight. And she hadn’t thought about it much. Until a friend visited Liebrum and her daughter in the hospital.

“After I arrived at the hospital, a friend stopped by to visit,” Liebrum wrote. “Before acknowledging Devon, she looked at me. With purrs of envy, she commented on how thin I looked. Again, I was at a loss for words. My daughter was not.

“My mom is not skinny because she worked at it,” Devon told our visitor. “It’s because I’m sick.”

Liebrum writes that the friend merely waved off the comment and continued with the visit. Another friend complimented Liebrum about her weight loss, saying that she looked “amazing,” and adding that she’d “love to catch the stomach bug this year and lose a few pounds myself.”

Both of these comments are thoughtless. But are they meant to callous? As hurtful as comments like these can be, it’s likely that they are the result of people feeling socially awkward around cancer patients. Very often when we’re nervous, we fall back on the banal small talk that pervades day-to-day life. It would be nice to think that people – especially people close to you – would have the presence of mind to put their brains in gear before opening their mouths. But hey … people aren’t perfect.

Of course, not all cancer “compliments” are bad. WhatNexter Carool writes that she thought the first wig she bought after her losing her hair due to breast cancer treatments looked – in her words – “ridiculous.”

But when a young neighbor saw Carool in her wig, she told her, “Your hair looks great!”

Wig For Cancer Patient

“I didn’t mind hearing that,” Carool wrote. And you could almost hear her smile has she typed it.

Have you run into any thoughtless compliments during your cancer journey? Share them with us on the WhatNext forums!

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