Conversations About Cancer: Debunking the “Right” and “Wrong” Words
By Ali O’Grady –
Since launching Thoughtful Human in 2017, I have had the privilege of speaking with hundreds of people about their journeys through adversity. From cancer, to addiction, mental health, and beyond, one thing has become clear — amidst our greatest challenges, we all find ourselves in moments where we are simply at a loss for words.
Of course, I understand this intimately from my own experiences. In 2011, after supporting my father through a long journey with colon cancer and adopting his “eternally optimistic” attitude, I found myself completely paralyzed when his health took a sudden and rapid decline.
As a family, we were really good at fighting his cancer; we’d done it many times. It was never about the 95% odds against us, but staying in that 5%. We were really good at that.
So, after 10 years of living with cancer, when the oncologist told us it was time for my dad to go into hospice, my family and I were at a complete and utter loss. He still wanted to fight. We still wanted to fight. But life had other plans and there we were, at the end of the line.
How do you begin — how does anyone begin — to communicate in the face of certain and impending death? Do we have to? Did my dad want to?
At the time, we all struggled with what to say to him, and everyone else struggled with what to say to us. But now, eight years after his passing, I finally understand that those “right words” that we were all searching for — they simply don’t exist. In fact, there are exactly zero words in the English language (or any language) that cure cancer, solve complex mental health issues, or bring people back from the dead.
So take a deep breath, release the pressure, and relinquish control.
Now that we’re here — no longer searching for the “right words,” or staying silent for fear of saying the wrong ones — we can really start to show up.
What does that actually look like? In reality, it’s really (almost annoyingly) straightforward: How are you feeling today? How is your heart? Do you want to talk about it? Do you want to be left alone for a while?
Simple questions that create the space for real conversations. Consistency that builds trust and fosters vulnerability. Openness and candor that lets our loved ones feel seen, and either opt out or step in and guide the conversation when they’re ready.
Show up, ask, listen, and repeat.
That’s it. And, in a nutshell, that’s Thoughtful Human — helping people navigate these incredibly delicate moments, and meeting our loved ones where they’re at.
We’re not going to send “get well” sentiments — some of us aren’t going to get well. We’re not going to send “sympathy” or “condolences” — some of us haven’t even processed our circumstances or loss yet. And we’re definitely not going to attempt to construe meaning from anyone’s hardships — because honestly sometimes life just doesn’t make any sense.
What are we going to do? Acknowledge your pain and tell you the only thing we know for certain — you’re not alone and you have a right to just feel it, whatever it may be.