Sometimes People Say The Dumbest Things (and don’t even know it!)

Dr. Rick Wirtz Health Guide
  • A few weeks ago I was meeting with a woman who has been diagnosed with and is now being treated for ovarian cancer. She has done quite well but was referred by her oncologist because she seemed to be overwhelmed or maybe even depressed. She has support from her family but tends to be a bit on the anxious side and worries about a lot of things that she can’t change.

    At a recent family gathering when she told a cousin that she had ovarian cancer the cousin responded, “Oh, the silent killer”. I’ll give you just a few seconds to get back up off the floor because I’m sure that you were probably blown away by that remark. What in the world was the cousin thinking? Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and consider the possibility that he was trying to demonstrate that he had some knowledge of that particular type of cancer. While he might have been correct in describing it that way because of the typical lack of outward symptoms, just imagine what that felt like to my client. That was an emotional punch to the gut that sent her reeling and provided nothing useful for her.
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    I wish I could tell you that this is where it ended but it didn’t. Several minutes later he made the statement “I hope you make it through this”. This is a great example of an honest and probably loving sentiment that could hardly have been stated more poorly.

    Now we’ve all heard people make thoughtless remarks and we may have even been the designated recipient of those but it is a very different thing when very serious health issues are the topic. Clearly some people really don’t have the social skills to handle these situations better and others may have their own emotional and personality issues that make it next to impossible for them to respond sensitively to someone who’s hurting. If you are the recipient of those kinds of remarks hopefully you can consider these possibilities and not jump to the conclusion that they were intentionally trying to hurt you. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

    If you were the cousin how could you have communicated your thoughts and feelings differently? Hopefully, you can think of a handful of ways pretty quickly. However, just in case you are struggling let me make a few suggestions. First of all, unless you are her nurse or doctor, showing that you know something about the illness really isn’t necessary unless you have heard something while you were listening thoughtfully (hint, hint) that doesn’t seem to mesh with what you know. Even then your comments should be offered tentatively. Then when wishing her well you can avoid frightening her by simply saying “I wish you all the best…I’ll be thinking about you!”
Published On: September 21, 2006