what not to say to someone with cancer

What not to say to someone with cancer; Why you shouldn’t use the ‘Hit by a Bus’ analogy

As more and more time goes by I seem to come across more and more evidence that those who’ve had a cancer diagnosis and those who haven’t live in two very different worlds.  I spend a lot of my time having to explain myself, justify my behaviours and the way I live my life now because the vast majority of people just do not get it.

As many people with cancer will know some comments, phrases or misguided efforts at making you feel better actually have the opposite effect.   And while they are meant in the best possible way they often leave you feeling even more misunderstood and alone. Mainly because it means that they really have no idea how you are feeling or what you are going through.  This is yet another of thing that changes after cancer…finding phrases and sayings either really resonate, make you want to scream or laugh at the irony.

leukaemia aml blood cancer life quote when you've felt the blade can you truly understand the scar
This one really does resonate now
One of the most popular comments cancer patients seem to be faced with is the ‘any of us could get hit by a bus anytime’ analogy …
Why shouldn’t you use this when talking to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer? Because isn’t it pretty obvious that they’ve actually now been hit by said bus so actually it is not applicable anymore.  They don’t have the luxury of ‘it may never happen’ or living in a world where their body hasn’t turned against them in the most devastating way.  In my case I was diagnosed with one of the deadliest forms of cancer, Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, which has dismal survival rates and gruelling treatment so that bus did a good job on me.

When a friend used this phrase once when talking to me, as if in some way we were the same, it left me feeling really upset.  As I watched her walk away all I could think was…’don’t you see I have been hit by that bus, you can’t compare what’s happened to me to what may or may not happen to you one day.  You have no idea that what you just said makes me want to scream ‘cancer is not some abstract concept to me anymore’.

Also the bus analogy doesn’t make sense because whenever you cross a road do you not look and make your own decision on whether or not it is safe to cross?  Did I make the choice to develop cancer?  When you are going about your daily lives you have a certain amount of control over your own safety…when crossing a road, standing at a bus stop or driving your car.  You can take extra care, look twice or avoid trouble spots. But when it comes to the ‘cancer bus’ no amount of being careful can change a thing.  I had no control over what my own body did to me, how it turned against me, my own bone marrow.  BONE MARROW FAILURE, yes 90% of it was not functioning and without healthy blood cells your body fails, yours organs fail…life fails.  This is where the analogy doesn’t really fit a cancer diagnosis.

Also this ‘bus’ is likely to come and hit me again…how many times have you heard of someone being hit by a bus twice?  I live in fear of being hit again and am constantly looking over my shoulder waiting for its impact.

When offering words of comfort to someone who has been diagnosed by cancer perhaps think carefully before saying ‘Of course any of us could be hit by a bus at any time.’  Don’t try to generalise it, to make it sound like it doesn’t matter, it was inevitable anyway and that being so makes it ok that you’ve been hit by a life threatening, life changing disease.


So where did this phrase come from anyway?? Here’s what I found out;

A generic rather than literal example of misfortune, verbal shorthand to indicate that none of us know our future, that a catastrophe is merely an involuntary act of fate. Casually used to refer to an unexpected death, illness, debilitating injury yet without making it seem grim.

According to Wikipedia it was first used in the novel ‘The Secret Agent’ by Joseph Conrad; “But just try to understand that it was a pure accident; as much as if he had been run over by a bus while crossing the street.”

This term is also used a lot in business management meaning that there must always be a contingency plan in case someone in the team is taken ill, leaves, etc unexpectedly.  And the definition from the newly popular Urban Dictionary is ‘Used instead of the word Stupid’ For example; ‘OMG this mobile is so getting hit by a bus.’ when said mobile isn’t working properly.

How do you feel about this?  Has someone said it to you and you’ve found it upsetting because you have been hit by that bus but they haven’t?  I’d love to hear from you…Thanks for taking time out of your day to read this…love Butterfly 


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