'At Least It’s not Cancer' and Other Unhelpful Comments About MS

Patient Expert

In life, there are many situations where people want to be the best at something. Getting good grades or being recognized for excellence are examples. Nobody strives to be the worst at something … usually. But I’ve witnessed too many people within the chronic-disease community boast about how their disease or situation is worse than someone else’s. They say things like:

  • “At least you don’t have crushing pain; my multiple sclerosis (MS) hug feels like a boa constrictor squeezing the life out of me or causing a heart attack.”

  • “At least you can ride a bike; I can’t even walk to my car without a cane.”

  • “At least you can walk; my legs are paralyzed.”

  • “You’re complaining about how people park poorly in the accessible parking spaces? At least you can still drive.”

These types of statements are self-serving and demonstrate lack of awareness or empathy for someone else’s experience. They show a disrespect for the other’s experience and silently scream: “Are you kidding me? I need your empathy.” These words do nothing to try to cheer up the other person or try to make them feel better. They hit the ear with a sting that is tangible.

‘At least it’s not cancer’

How many times have you heard someone say: “At least it’s not cancer,” to console a friend? Have you ever spoken these words to another individual suffering from a chronic condition?

I do believe that most people who say such things are sincerely trying to make another person feel better. They’re probably trying to find the silver living in an otherwise bad situation and help you to see it too. But it’s one thing to tell myself such things — in an attempt to self-sooth and put things into perspective for myself — and another when someone else utters these words.

“At least it’s not a brain tumor”

When I experienced optic neuritis for the first time many years ago, I was frightened. It was an emergency situation that sent me to three different eye specialists in one day. I was on my way to becoming blind. It was the neuro-ophthalmologist who ordered the magnetic resonance image and informed us that possible diagnoses included a brain tumor or multiple sclerosis.

When the test results came back, I felt very lucky and relieved that I was not diagnosed with either condition. Although, I still couldn’t see out of my right eye for almost three months, I had hope that this was a one-time occurrence and that life would go on as usual.

I was lucky that my doctor didn’t try to point out silver linings. He said that my diagnosis was good news, but he did not play down the severity of what I was going through. He did share that statistics suggested my risk for developing MS was increased for the next five years. My MS diagnosis was made about five-and-a-half years later.

A tarnished silver living

If you are trying to help someone deal with a new diagnosis or a change in health status, think again. Avoid the phrase: “At least it’s not …” Let’s not try to compare the apples and oranges of diseases; both are yucky when rotten, even as one becomes totally mushy while the other shrivels up.

Multiple sclerosis is like cancer in some ways and it’s not like cancer in others. Both can be life-changing and debilitating. Both may require very intense medical treatment. Both can lead to earlier mortality in some, but not all, people. But people diagnosed with cancer may receive more empathy and support from others, because … well ... it’s cancer.

Offer acceptance and hope

While you might be trying to help your friend or loved one see the positive side of their situation or to count their blessings, it’s best to avoid clichés. Instead, listen and ask questions. Try not to disrespect their experience in that moment by trying to distract them or put things in perspective. Mirror their concerns and offer your unconditional support.

By doing so, you may provide the catalyst to help your friend polish their own silver lining from within.

See more helpful articles:

Cleaning Out the Emotional Clutter of MS

The Impact of Caregiver Fatigue in MS

How NOT to Park in the Accessible Parking Space