1. “Well, its only hair.” It is only hair when it is on someone else’s head (and losing it over many years is not the same.) Keep in mind that when you lose your hair from chemotherapy, you lose ALL your hair — eyebrows, eyelashes, everything, everywhere. For many people, losing their hair is their biggest fear about treatment. This is not vain, this is not short sighted, this is being human. Do not trivialize it.
2. “It must be so easy to just put a wig on in the morning.” (see above)
3. “Life is fragile. None of us know how long we have. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” This comment might make someone with cancer push you in front of that bus. If you are healthy, you are not on the same “life playing field” as someone with cancer. They confront the same risks you do everyday and on top of those, have the fear of cancer’s worst case scenario to contend with. I can’t even imagine. If you don’t have cancer, neither can you.
4. “I know someone who has …” Unless you know someone who has the same type of cancer, diagnosed at the same stage, with a positive outcome, keep it to yourself. If you are talking to someone who has stage 4 breast cancer, they do not want to hear about your friend’s basal cell or your father’s prostate cancer. I promise you, it will not make them feel better.
5. “I wish there was something I could do.” UNLESS you mean it. There is always something you can do; listen, make a meal; take out their garbage; send a card; pray. For people who are ill, support from those around them makes all the difference in the world. This doesn’t mean that they want to be treated like an invalid, just that they may appreciate a little more understanding and help. Of course, there are some people who are very private and want to behave as if nothing has changed. Pay attention and follow their lead.
I am no expert on saying the right thing and have put my foot in my mouth countless times. I would have loved a little heads up, such as, “Before you ask when she is due, she is not expecting.” OR “Don’t ask him how his lovely wife is doing. She ran away with his best friend.” Stuff like that. So, I offer the above, not as any kind of expert, but from what I have heard or witnessed, to help you avoid causing someone more pain or discomfort. The best rule of thumb (and I am reminding myself as well) is to really mean whatever you say. If you ask, “How are you?” listen to the answer. If someone says fine, they either don’t want to talk about it or they are enjoying a good day. If they open up, lend them an ear or a shoulder. It costs you nothing but time. And it is not always up to you to say something to make them feel better. More often than not, just having someone listen will do the trick