Clichés Lurk in Cancer’s Human Experience

Clichés are made for cancer.  It is said that in times of stress we go back to what we know, react in ways that we have reacted before where we stayed safe, and as such we rely on well-worn expressions as a useful and most times inoffensive part of our natural language.  They are part of a toolbox when you have no idea how to respond.  Clichés are a shield we can raise as we try to create a frame of reference for something we can’t quite compute, like hearing that a 27-year-old woman has breast cancer. 

Often, when we would encounter someone who would hear for the first time that Adrienne had breast cancer they would not know what to say and a cliché would fall out of their mouths onto the ground between us.  We would awkwardly stare at it for a few moments, engage in pleasantries and move on with our day. Both of us knew what a shock it was to hear, because we were Things One and Two when the diagnosis was first spoken aloud. As time went on, however, we heard some of these just too often enough that I wanted to carry one of those noise makers around so I could make it stop. You know, pull it out of my pocket and HOOOONNNKKK it at the speaker. Here are my top contenders.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

No, no it doesn’t.  Treating cancer is still in the realm of barbarism because cancer is a relentless invader that we still don’t quite have a handle on so we toss everything we can at it hoping something sticks. Surgery on the lymph nodes in my daughter’s dominant-side armpit has left her with permanent damage that has weakened her arm to the point that she has moved things around in her kitchen so if she has to pull the bottle of wine out of the cupboard she is forced to use her right arm…first world problems. On the emotional side of the house, there are multiple triggers that will make both of us feel like we need to curl into a fetal position and pull a blanket over our heads until they go away. Cancer doesn’t necessarily make you weaker, but it doesn’t necessarily make you stronger, either. It just makes you different.

Time Heals All Wounds

Yes, time does heal all wounds. What’s lost in that cliché is the fact that wounds leave scars, and scars are forever. Time does not take away the physical scars, nor does it completely diminish the emotional scars that result from being told at 27 that you’ll need to be scanned every year for the rest of your life because of the risk of recurrence and that’s a fear you’ll always have to carry. Each one of those tests opens the emotional wounds you’ve worked so hard to heal. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, and when you’re as young as my daughter was when she was diagnosed, that’s a lot of wrapped boxes to stare at in your future while you wait for someone to lift the lid and give you the test results to find out if the cancer is back.

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

This one made me want to punch the speaker in the throat every…single…time. There is no silver lining to cancer. Yes, the experience can make people reflect on their lives and clarify for them what’s really important, but a lot of other less traumatizing things can do that just as well. This cliché leaves the cancer patient thinking that they have to find some positive aspect to their diagnosis for it to matter. The burden that places on someone with cancer when they are facing a grueling series of treatments is unnecessary and completely unfair.

There’s Power in Positive Thinking

Once again, the burden this places on a 27-year-old who just found out she’s going to lose her hair, or potentially lose the feeling in her hands and feet or suffer blood clots while she undergoes 20 weeks of chemotherapy is a bit much. Yes, positive thinking does help when the rug has been pulled out from under you. However, the opposite of this cliché, which is often what is heard, is that there is weakness in negative thinking. When you have cancer it’s okay…no, necessary…to allow yourself some time to be angry, to be sad, to feel negatively about what all of this actually means. Then you can take a deep breath and step one foot in front of the other and get it done. If you don’t allow yourself to go there even a little, with each by-the-way cancer moment you get thrown at you as it happens, by the time you’re done your mind will be so full it will have no room and then where are you?

One thing that I hope will become cliché is two simple words that were the best thing we heard from anyone as we negotiated the rocky terrain of diagnosis and treatment. This simple phrase conveys all that needs to be said to someone who is trying to keep their footing as the ground trembles below them. I encourage everyone out there to tuck it into the corner of their toolbox for the next time they hear someone has cancer and are searching their list of clichés for an appropriate response as they process their own shock and introspection.

Cancer sucks

The end.


Mother…Grandmother…Librarian…Military Spouse…Caregiver…Family Life Educator…take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California.  She has been married for 36 years to a Canadian Air Force Veteran and credits him with filling her life with adventure.  When Debbie Legault’s children look at family photos they often comment on how many different hairstyles she has had and that pretty much is her story, that her life has taken as many turns and led her down as many paths as her hair has changed!  Her latest role is as the author of Mom…It’s Cancer, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Looking for more advice on what to say and what not to say to someone with cancer? Click here.

You may also be interested in

The Unexpected Pressure of Making Fertility Decisions After Diagnosis
Cancer is Crap: The Wait
My Experience with PTSD After My Cancer Diagnosis
50 Carroll Street Toronto, Ontario Canada M4M 3G3
Phone: 416 220 0700
Registered Charity #: 892176116RR0001

Join Our Movement

Follow Us

Donate Now

You can make a positive impact in the lives of people impacted by breast cancer