11/14/2013 12:43 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Stupid Comments and Cancer: You Can't Win, So Just Politely Smile and Move On

It's inevitable. Someone, somewhere will say the wrong thing to you about cancer. It's happened to me and practically everyone I know who has fought this disease. At first, I was confused as to how to respond to something I took as inappropriate or offensive. No one means to offend; it is just an unintended consequence. And that begins the internal debate raging in my head. Should I let the "offender" know how I really feel? Give him a piece of my mind and make sure to set him straight? Is it really worth the effort? After a while, I realized that the answer, at least for me, was no. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, which I think I picked up from a South Park episode: "There are no stupid comments, only stupid people." I always found that humorous, though not always accurate. The truth is, when it comes to cancer, people just don't know what to say. And what makes this situation even more difficult is that everyone fighting cancer is different, so what might be appropriate to say to one person, may be offensive to others. There's no consensus on what to say. Cancer makes people uncomfortable. Some people get nervous. Others are presumptuous. Some are naive. And some just don't have a verbal filter and come off as assholes. Though that last category is reserved for a select few. Again, their intent is not malicious, but the damage is done. It's just one more thing people with cancer need to deal with. Here are some examples of the most egregious comments that have actually been said to me at one point or another. Just to be clear, these are things I DON'T want to hear:

  • I don't need to hear "you poor, poor thing" with a half-hearted puppy-dog face.
  • I don't need a list of everyone you know who has cancer. And I especially don't need to know about the ones who lost their cancer battle.
  • I don't need to hear "you look so much better than I thought you'd look."
  • I don't need to hear about your medical symptoms and asked whether I think they might be cancer. In fact, most of them gross me out. I'm not a friggin' doctor.
  • I don't need to hear about the latest wacky, holistic cure that is working wonders in some far-flung village or commune.
  • I don't need to hear any requests to hook you up with medicinal marijuana.
  • I don't need to hear about how God may be punishing me. Or, alternatively, how everything will be all right. You don't know that. None of us does.
  • I don't need to hear your thoughts on how my urine may glow in the dark due to chemo.
  • And I don't need to hear what you would do if you were in my shoes. Because you're not.

There are plenty of other comments that I can list, but you get the point. I'm sure other cancer patients or survivors can generate a similar list of inappropriate comments. For whatever reason, many people lose their bearings when talking to me about cancer. But I've learned to deal with it. I find a polite smile or nod will suffice. I don't engage. It's not worth my time or energy. I'm focused on me, not others. I know if I confront everyone who says something inappropriate, then my stress level will rise. Not to mention the fact that I will probably be "that guy" in line at Starbucks yelling at people. Instead of anger, I laugh about it. Not to their faces. I usually wait until they leave the room, though not always. Laughter is my main coping mechanism these days. So I'm able to find humor in these situations. My advice to those curious about the right way to speak to cancer patients is to talk to us like you did before the cancer diagnosis. Treat us like you normally would. If you do feel the need to address the cancer, speak from your heart and keep it simple. That usually works with me.

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