Reality, honesty and candour is all cancer sufferers want – not your fake optimism

PUBLISHED: 18:01 30 January 2019

Fay Ripley's character Jenny in Cold Feet, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer

Fay Ripley's character Jenny in Cold Feet, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer


A storyline in ITV’s Cold Feet this week should be applauded for bringing home the reality of dealing with cancer, says Rachel Moore

When a sobbing Jenny in ITV’s Cold Feet on Monday night demanded her best friend, Karen, dropped the sympathy when she revealed she had breast cancer and rail against the “s***” disease, she spoke for cancer patients everywhere.

A cancer diagnosis is s***. It’s at the top of the Not Wanted in Our Lifetime list.

But so is a chronic heart condition, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis and a raft of life-threatening and debilitating diseases and conditions.

Cancer is unique though because it comes with its own language. For other people, anyway.

Once they know what you have, people adopt the cancer look – a blend of pity and sadness tinged with fear – and a distinct vocabulary and terminology.

A cancer diagnosis is enough of a life blow – but as well as handling that this thing is growing inside you, has chosen you to upturn your life, you are instantly transformed into a warrior.

You’re “fighting this”, people say – embarking on a “battle”. “You can win this,” say people, who have no idea what it feels like. So crass.

“You’re strong, you will beat it,” they go on, handing the responsibility to you to will yourself well – all at a time when all you want to do is lie on the floor, in a ball, sobbing about missing seeing your children grow up, seeing the people they become, as Jenny said.

Treatment, doctor’s judgements, expert forecasts are the side show.

The main plot is the mission of the one living with the news and its effects to take it on and see it off.

Living with a tumour is s***. It’s a rubbish card to be dealt. Why can’t we just say that?

I cheered when a distraught Jenny told Karen she knew everyone would stand by her, be with her every step of the way.

But she knew that. It’s taken as read that the people you love and love you will be there.

What she really needed her oldest friend to say was that it was terrible, hold her tight and empathise that she was feeling rock bottom. Pollyanna positivity was the last thing she wanted.

What makes people imply that the outcome of cancer lies with the sufferer? That bravery, courage, being a fighter and strong and willing yourself to take on ninja powers to “battle” the cancer to “win” makes an iota of difference?

It’s so inappropriate, unfair and a little crass. The more you think about it, it’s outrageous, cruel and thoughtless.

War-like words aren’t used for any other illness. No-one expects someone whose muscles are wasting and whose body is slowly giving up to fight it, to become a warrior to see off the condition by courage.

No magic powers are invested in people with cancer to take on nature and win where the best medical minds have failed.

What we say to people with cancer and how we say it as been in the spotlight in a research by Macmillan Cancer Support.

Most people, it says, don’t want this fight claptrap. They don’t want to be victims. They are ill and need treatment. End of.

Referring to their courage risks putting them under pressure to appear positive. At last. It’s in the open and we need to shut up and listen.

To respond to someone’s cancer diagnosis with “that’s s***” might feel insensitive and careless, but it’s true, and exactly what that person is feeling.

Reality, honesty and candour is what they want. Just ask them and never assume.

Everyone is different. We all react in different ways. It’s down to the owner of this hideous disease to call the shots about how it’s spoken about, not anyone else.

When I was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago, I was told I was lucky. I had the “good cancer.” It was treatable and, as a Macmillan nurse described it to me, was a “boring cancer” – so slow-growing it was “like watching paint dry.”

I didn’t feel lucky. It didn’t feel boring. I was a self-employed recently separated lone parent.

My cancer wasn’t going to kill me but I faced a year of surgery, treatment, fear and crippling anxiety about how I was going to make ends meet.

Cancer isn’t all about death. It’s about living with it.

My cancer was in my thyroid. An essential organ was taken out in two surgeries, leaving me with a lifetime of daily drugs to try to replicate all its functions.

Without a thyroid people eventually die. Getting the level of drugs right is a nightmare.

To eradicate all the cancer cells I was made radioactive by a capsule delivered by a nuclear scientist and isolated in a lead-lined room for three days, banned from cuddling my children for days after.

And then there’s the fear that having cancer once means getting again, that you’re susceptible.

I lost a year of my life to treatment and getting well. Boring? To the medical profession perhaps, but not when you’re dealing with it.

I’d willingly have watched paint dry than go through 2011 again.

Just think before you speak – and ask.

It’s their tumour, their life, let them decide how you talk about the very personal and unique time in their lives.

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