We've all been given advice we didn't ask for. Most advice-givers have the best of intentions - or they may be trying to allay their own fears when they dole out unpaid for (and unwanted!) counseling. But when you've been diagnosed with cancer, unwelcome tips can be hurtful or even harmful.
So, how do you handle unsolicited advice from loved ones, friends, or even strangers? Alice-May Purkiss has come up with 5 strategies to fend off armchair advice... as well as 4 things well-wishers should NOT say to someone with cancer.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I was lucky.
Honestly, I was fortunate in many ways, but I was especially lucky that I'd never met someone else with the disease.
My family was remarkably unscathed by cancer. I didn't know anyone who'd died from the illness. I'd never met anyone who'd lost their hair from chemotherapy or who'd had to endure endless surgeries and bouts of medication. I didn't know anything about the long-term impact those surgeries and powerful drugs would have.
In fact, the only things I knew about cancer were from the TV or in movies. People withering away in their beds. Their families arguing and crying. Television tends to roll out the same classic narrative tropes over and over again.
Looking back, I wonder what I would have said if I had met someone. Someone who was diagnosed with the same illness that took my breast and my hair. If I’d had a loved one with the same cancer that crashed my life and left me picking up the pieces long after the tumor had gone.
Would I have, the same as many did to me, tilted my head slightly to the left and said I was "sorry"? Would I have delved into my store of stock phrases and platitudes because I didn't know what else to say? Would I have said nothing at all in fear of saying the wrong thing?
When it came to my cancer diagnosis and experience, I soon realized everyone had their own reaction to hearing I was a cancer patient.
But what really shocked me?
The barrage of unsolicited advice.
I knew I'd have to get used to this very, very quickly.
How to be patient when faced with unsolicited cancer advice
Unsolicited advice can be frustrating, especially when you've got a team of experts who:
A) Have studied the field and aren't basing their information on anecdotes
B) Give you the advice you need to follow to pull through
But, it's important to remember that unsolicited advice, whether from a colleague or a family member or friend, comes from a well-meaning place.
More often than not, those giving advice on self-care or what you should eat ("There is SUCH a good smoothie you can make!") think they're genuinely helping.
So, every time I faced someone telling me what I should or shouldn't be doing, I thought of the lyrics from "Everybody's Free" by Baz Luhrmann:
Be careful whose advice you buy but be patient with those who supply it
Advice is a form of nostalgia; dispensing it is a way of fishing the past
From the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts
And recycling it for more than it's worth. (1)
"Be patient with those who supply it" became a bit of a mantra for me during treatment.
Throughout the daily barrage of tips on "how to do cancer," I had to remind myself there was benevolence at the heart of it all. But, as time went on, I knew I also had to set firm boundaries... and keep them, too.
5 Tips for responding to unwanted advice about cancer
The last thing you want when undergoing cancer treatment is conflict. I soon became an expert at avoiding that!
When someone thinks they're trying to help, I found it best not to outright dismiss them. In fact, a lot of the time, I find myself thinking back to the times I've given advice from the heart, with the other person probably finding it intensely irritating.
That's enough for me to remember to be "polite but firm." Over time, I developed a list of stock phrases to rattle out depending on the suggestion, who was dispensing the advice, and how I felt about it. Feel free to opt for any of these if you find yourself in a similar situation.
1. "I'll keep that in mind."
Even if you don't plan to keep it in mind, or even give it a second's further thought, this is a good, neutral way to let people think you might.
There's only one risk: these advice-givers may ask if you've tried their suggestion at a future meeting. Make sure you have a response lined up if they do.
2. "Good idea. I'll think about whether that's right for me."
The best thing about this tactic? You praise the advice-giver for their idea while setting a boundary that the advice may not suit you. It makes it clear to the advice-giver that nothing about cancer is a "one-size-fits-all" scenario.
3. "I'm not looking for advice right now."
Some people are confident you'd want advice; others aren't sure. Of the latter category, some may offer uncertain advice because they think it's what you want.
This tactic is intended to be a gentle way to say you don't want advice. Hopefully, it'll be a massive relief... for both of you.
Plus, they can respond when you lay out exactly what you want, be that comfort, support, or even just a hug. Let them know and give you what you need.
4. "Thanks, but I'm only taking advice from my medical team right now."
Remind any persistent advice-givers that you're already getting the best of help from the experts. That will help them get back in their lane.
Unless they’re oncologists, surgeons, chemotherapy nurses, or radiologists, they don't really fit in the "expert" box... and they can't really argue with that.
5. "I'm not going to do that."
Sometimes these advice-givers just want to steamroll over you, no matter what you say to deter them.
If you have no plan on doing what's suggested to you, there is nothing wrong with politely, yet firmly, saying no.
When it comes to cancer and its associated treatment, it's your health. The big, scary thing is happening to you. You don’t have to beat around the bush to make others feel better… especially when they’re making you feel worse.
4 Things NOT to say to someone with cancer
On the same note, there are certain things people going through cancer treatment don't need to hear.
If you're reading this from the perspective of a friend or a loved one, you may accidentally say something that leads to the gloves coming off.
The following statements are absolutely no-goes, and you should immediately remove even the thought of letting them enter your conversation.
1. "Forget what your doctor says! You should be juicing/on an alkaline diet/eating more carrots!"
You may be shocked that someone would say something like this, and rightly so.
For those of you who think this is genuinely good advice, let me tell you that, in reality, this is a HARD NO.
If someone with cancer wants to explore holistic treatments alongside mainstream cancer care, that’s their call. But you don't get to tell them how to approach their illness or their wellness.
If you're an expert and the person with cancer wants your opinion, they will ask for it. Until then, stand down. And, please, no more anecdotes about how a "friend of a friend's husband beat cancer with cold press carrot juice and a jog three times a day."
Which brings me to...
2. "My friend's aunt's second cousin's husband's sister had your cancer, and they DIED."
In what world can this be thought of as helpful?
I know this is something people tend to blurt out when they're nervous or scared, not being deliberately malicious. But everyone who is diagnosed with cancer has had a very harsh reminder of their mortality. They do not need you to remind them of this too.
I can guarantee your loved one with cancer has probably thought about their own death a million times. On top of that, they probably know people who've died from the same condition... and if the loved one's treatment is working, they may also have survivor's guilt.
Essentially, if you think you're going to say, "I know someone who died from what you've got," flick yourself on the wrist, hard. You don't need to add fuel to the fire, as the situation is already emotionally complex enough.
3. "Do you think it's something you did that caused your cancer?"
Again, this is something I've asked myself a million times. It's something every cancer patient has asked themselves a million times.
Did I eat too much chocolate?
Should I have been more active?
Was my job too sedentary?
Did my history of depression somehow cause my cancer?
Is this all my fault?!
We're already blaming ourselves enough as it is. Don't add to the guilt.
Oh, and if you think you've "found" the reason for the cancer diagnosis, don't say something like, "I expect it was the smoking/drinking/unhealthy food/working where you worked/stress..." etc.
Again, how does that help? What does it do but make everybody feel worse? If you can't keep your judgments to yourself in someone's time of need, the best thing for you to do is stay silent or stay away.
4. "Are you going to die? What are your odds?"
This is a necessary question, but it’s for close friends and family only. Enough said.
So, what can I say to a loved one with cancer?
Advice is something people very rarely ask for, cancer or not. I also understand that asking, "Will you die?" may come from a place of worry. But anyone with cancer won't want to be asked that either.
Speak from the heart. No one expects you to swoop in and save the day. You can't. It's all down to treatment, care, and a million other factors beyond your control. All you can do is listen if your loved one with cancer wants to talk.
And if you ask, "Is there anything I can do to help you with everyday things?" you have to mean it. Just one vacuum around the house, a hot meal, or one less pile of washing up can mean the world to some cancer patients. If by "help" you mean "giving a quick platitude," then don't offer to help. We won't judge you. We're too busy with our own list of worries.
Finally, if you don't know what to say, say just that. Again, there will be no judgment from us. When we got diagnosed, we had no idea what to say either. And we'd rather you were honest than joining an invisible competition to appear "the most caring."
If you're the person with the cancer diagnosis? Remember how you might have slipped up before you were the patient. Be as compassionate as you can be for the person in front of you.
It's hard work, but remember, everyone is doing their best. There's no perfect way to deal with any of this, and empathy from both sides can go a long, long way.
(1) Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen, Baz Luhrmann, 1999, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxEHGAY7LbY, last accessed September 2021.
NPS-IE-NP-00332 October 2021