Congratulations! You're a survivor! I'm sorry. You had cancer.
July 23, 2009 10:03 AM   Subscribe

What does one say to a cancer survivor when they tell you that they're a cancer survivor?

I'm having a conversation with a lady who is a very infrequent acquaintance (we run into each other occasionally in the courtyard of the office complex). We have probably had 5 short conversations in the past year. She's a very nice lady. At one point in the conversation she says "I'm a cancer survivor", and suddenly, I don't know how to proceed. It was germane to the conversation, but only tangentially.

In the split second's following, I'm trying to figure out how to respond. "I'm sorry" doesn't sound right; I mean, she survived! "Congratulations," also doesn't sound right because she had cancer.

Thankfully she proceeded after I said "Oh," and nodded my head. Is there a conventional response in the cancer survivor community or something?
posted by Barry B. Palindromer to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think there is anything wrong with saying congratulations. She BEAT cancer.
posted by msali at 10:07 AM on July 23, 2009

If the person brings it up, I would think that means they sort of want to talk about it. Maybe an, "Oh?", or a question like "Really? How long ago did you beat it?", or something of that ilk would be a good idea. Tough question, though.
posted by nosila at 10:07 AM on July 23, 2009

"How long have you been in remission?" Maybe?
posted by Pantengliopoli at 10:09 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

My initial reaction is "Wow, that's pretty amazing". Which it is.
posted by Phire at 10:11 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think it's fine to say "Wow, I didn't know that. How are you feeling now?" If you sense she's uncomfortable going into more detail, go back to what you were talking about before.

As long as you show interest and don't come across like you think she's abnormal or a freak (it seems like you don't feel that way), I think she'll want to open up and share about her experience. Only if your body language and tone indicate that you are sincerely interested, of course.
posted by chalbe at 10:13 AM on July 23, 2009

"i'm glad you're healthy" or... "congratulations" works.
posted by baxter_ilion at 10:13 AM on July 23, 2009

You kicked cancer's ass!
posted by sharkfu at 10:13 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would probably say something like "Sorry, but, wow, congratulations!" then gently steer the conversation back to whatever it is you were talking about. If you get to know her better you can inquire about other stuff.
posted by kathrineg at 10:14 AM on July 23, 2009

I'm also a cancer survivor, and I can only speak for myself, but I tell people when I want them to know more about me. Usually, a response of "Oh, really?" works when I mention it.
posted by xingcat at 10:15 AM on July 23, 2009

"I am glad, for me, that you are still around for me to get to know (keep on knowing)."
posted by Danf at 10:16 AM on July 23, 2009

Smiling wryly, "That sounds much better than the alternative."
posted by Mr. Yuck at 10:21 AM on July 23, 2009

I use "That's fantastic! Continued good health..."
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

"Oh, good job."
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2009

Well, whichever of the two you reply with aren't going to encapsulate all you're trying to say... Saying 'sorry... that must have been horrible' or, 'congratulations, I'm so glad you got through it' makes it clear you're using neither in the, erm, wrong way.

Mostly, from the experience of being with cancer stricken people I've had (including someone close to me) they mostly prefer it to not be seen as too big a deal... I mean, not walking on eggshells type thing. I think it's sort of acknowledged that some people are going to deal with those subjects fairly uncomfortably too, and probably won't be judged too harshly unless you really put your foot in it.

I agree though, the way this woman seems to have dropped it in there might leave me more than a little on my backfoot.
posted by opsin at 10:29 AM on July 23, 2009

I'd at least want to know what kind.
posted by Max Power at 10:30 AM on July 23, 2009

Well, you might want to know what kind, but that may be too intrusive of a question. (Some people may not want to even mention the name if the cancer was related to body parts we don't usually talk about in polite company, like colon, breast, uterus, etc.*) I think the op's response "Oh?" isn't too bad, actually. It leaves the door open for further comments from the survivor, but doesn't press the issue.

I mean, a woman may not want to reveal to an acquaintance that she'd had breast cancer, because the person might sit there the rest of the conversation wondering if she'd had a mastectomy, and if so, trying to figure out which breast isn't the original equipment.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:38 AM on July 23, 2009

I wouldn't worry about this if I were you, and I doubt the woman was looking for any particular response from you because there is no “proper” response here. Surviving cancer incorporates tragedy and triumph (--“I’m sorry” and “Congratulations” may both be appropriate--) but for the cancer survivor it's also mundane; like any number of other stressful, life-altering events we may all feel like venting about from time to fime.
posted by applemeat at 10:40 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would probably say "I'm glad you're well now", unless I wasn't. In that case, I'd probably say something less commital like "Yeah?" and keep my other opinions to myself.*

*I do not and would not wish cancer on anyone.
posted by owtytrof at 10:41 AM on July 23, 2009

I'm one, and bring it up occasionally when germane to the conversation (usually when people ask me about my slightly odd-looking prosthetic eye). I think in the first instance a hearty "that's great! I'm so glad you're well now" is fine, and that's what I tend to say when others drop it into the conversation. They will talk more about it if they want to, and you can use those conversational cues to decide whether to probe further if you're interested and it's appropriate, or drop the topic if you're not or they're uncomfortable. For me, I was a baby and it was very easily removed, so I don't remember the actual *having of the cancer*, it's just always been part of my life and so I'll yak on about it to anyone who's interested. For others it might have been a very traumatic, recent experience, so you need to judge whether it's okay to press for further info if you're intrigued.
posted by goo at 10:41 AM on July 23, 2009

"Rad. Anyway . . ."
posted by The World Famous at 10:43 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's what I say in my other cancer community folks. Mainly I've talked to kids, but also to friends/family/neighbors I know:

"That must have been a hard and scary journey. I'm so happy you beat it, and I hope you stay well."
posted by bunnycup at 10:54 AM on July 23, 2009

"Really? You look wonderful--and so healthy!"

This gives the person both a compliment and an out (or an in, if she wishes to continue the conversation about her cancer).
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:58 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

My favorite was "Yeah? Rock on!" or "You're very brave."
posted by sephira at 11:11 AM on July 23, 2009

"How long have you been clean?"

Or compare treatments, if applicable.

Cancer isn't that rare. Part of the trauma for people who have (had) cancer is that the subject is almost always branded a Big Deal if brought into conversation, and everyone gets weirded out.
posted by HFSH at 11:25 AM on July 23, 2009

"I'm not."
posted by chairface at 11:32 AM on July 23, 2009

I'm one. Variations on "congratulations," "awesome," etc. work fine. If you actually want to talk a little about it (and the person seems open to that kind of conversational turn), you can always ask how long they've been in remission.

What I hate is the sad/horrified face and the "OH MY GOD THAT'S TERRIBLE YOU POOR THING" reaction.
posted by scody at 11:58 AM on July 23, 2009

"Congratulations! So, anyway..."

Everyone I know who has battled cancer would find "congratulations" a fine response. However none of them would say "I'm a cancer survivor" without being prompted, and even then... It's a needlessly dramatic thing to say, and not really appropriate conversation for someone you don't really know.
posted by Ookseer at 12:01 PM on July 23, 2009

"I'm sorry you had to go through that. But I'm so glad you beat it!"
posted by bunji at 1:21 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't say anything; give them a high five.
posted by talkingmuffin at 1:44 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

You congratulate the hell out of them.

My wife is a cancer survivor. At least under conventional wisdom, people like her have stared the specter of eminent death, real or perceived, in the face and lived on to talk about it.

If you are a cancer survivor, it is a huge deal, and rightly so.

One year ago, almost to the day, we were both in fear that she would not live another year.

She's doing great.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:21 PM on July 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

Hmmm, I just picked up on something I missed before - did she actually say "I'm a cancer survivor" or something like "I had cancer"? I would never say the former, because hearing that outside of a support group would signal to me that the speaker saw herself as someone to be pitied (particularly if it was only your fifth, brief conversation) or that it happened only very recently and she can't help blurting it out in every conversation because it's still an enormous deal to her. The latter I would see as just making conversation if the subject arose.

Do you think she might like you and be trying to get to you know better, and this is a slightly ham-handdd way of going about it, perhaps?
posted by goo at 5:33 PM on July 23, 2009

I'm proably thinking about this way too much, but maybe she likes you and has had a mastecomy or some other body part removed (like, maybe, an eye!) and this is her slightly awkward way of telling you.
posted by goo at 5:42 PM on July 23, 2009

"Keep up the good work"
posted by Sublimity at 10:59 PM on July 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input. I definitely think something along the lines of congratulations would be the most appropriate when such a situation arises. I never would want to minimize the suffering of others, but emphasizing a happy outcome seems the best alternative.

Congratulations on beating cancer, all you cancer survivors answering (or reading) here!

(goo: while I suppose it's possible, she is my senior by at least 20 years and it's pretty obvious that I'm off the market.)
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 12:50 PM on July 24, 2009

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