Cancer is Crap: Never Let Go of the Potato: What to Say When Someone Has Cancer

November 25 2009, 10:38 PM

This post is a follow-up to my hugely unhelpful and paralysis-inducing post Ten Things Not To Say To Someone With Cancer. In an effort to make amends for freezing the tongues of well-meaning loved-ones, I’ll provide a quick round-up of some of the best things anyone has ever said to me concerning my cancerousness. Some are originals, some are quotes – for various reasons they’ve all worked for me. Herewith, in no particular order, some of my favourites:

  • “Never Let Go Of The Potato.” My French brother-in-law enthusiastically offered up this Louisiana expression — lâche pas la patate — freely admitting he had no idea what it meant. I like it for its absurdity and passion, like a slogan Che Guevara might have shouted, fist in air …if he had been a revolutionary, um, potato farmer.  But the point is, if the patate in question represents life, well, then I vow to lâche onto it with all I’ve got.


  • I feel sorry for the cancer.” I know I’ve mentioned this one before – but my friend Ben’s delivery was so good I felt like Al Capone.


  • “When in hell, keep walking.” A version of Winston Churchill’s “Keep Buggering On” which is another of my absolute all-time favourites.


  • “For myself I am an optimist. It does not seem to be much use being anything else.” Truly, I could do a whole list of Churchill quotes, god love the old soak. This one came to me from my friend Scotty Douglas.


  • “I’m not only here for you, I’m in-cancer’s-face here for you.” And its true, she was, and is, and I can’t begin to tell you how I love her for it.


  • “Yes, we’re Lifers, but it sure beats the alternative.” This, from a friend with the BRAC cancer gene – who has so far beaten both breast and pancreatic cancer, thank-you very much – in response to my whining that we were stuck dealing with cancer for the rest of our lives. Her point was, better to spend your life fighting, than not to have a life to spend at all.


  • “In the words of Bruce Cockburn, “We’re gonna kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight!” I could have posted this friend’s letter in its entirety, it was so on-the-money for my headspace that dark day (and so many days since!) but it was just so well written I’m afraid that might lead to someone offering him the book deal I want for myself, so all you’re getting is this great Bruce Cockburn quote.

There are more, so many more. And the writers/speakers of these things are brave souls – all of them – for finding their own way to tell me I’m loved and not alone at times when I need to hear that more than anything.

But in fact, sometimes just saying “I love you. You’re not alone, I promise.” is the most powerful thing you can say.

That is, as long as you don’t go off and forget that you promised to actually be there.

I think this would be a good list to keep going. From time to time I’d like to post round-ups of things both well-meant and well said on the maddening subject of my having cancer. There are actually so many of them that they effectively eclipse the many things that were well-meant but catastrophically said. And if anyone out there wants to contribute to this round-up of What to Say to Someone with Cancer, please do – I’ll collect as many quotes as I can, and together we’ll post something that will liberate all those poor people who live in fear of saying the wrong thing, especially those I drove into total verbal paralysis with my Ten Things Not to Say post. Perhaps we won’t be providing snappy one-liners to throw out at cocktail parties when the subject of cancer just happens to rear it’s buzz-killing head, but I think it could still be really useful to share what helps (and what doesn’t). You never know what’s going to work for someone when she or he needs it most — be it the person with cancer or the tongue-tied loved-one.


P.S. By way of explanation of my recent absence from the blogosphere: I’ve been away — and I’m going away again (escaping up north, with my little family and some friends!) which makes me a very happy woman and a very delinquent blogger. Apologies – will be less delinquent next week.

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