“You’re gonna look great bald!”
I said this to a friend of mine who had just told me she had cancer. I cringe every time I think about it.
It was a microaggression.
Since the recent Black Lives Matter movement, people have added this word to their vocabulary. But what does it mean and what does it have to do with cancer?
According to Dictionary.com, a microaggression is:
A statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group, such as a racial or ethnic minority.
I know, cancer patients aren’t first on the list when you think about marginalized groups. You aren’t born with cancer, and after a time, those with cancer hopefully won’t have it! But people with cancer do deal with microaggressions while they have cancer.
When you think about people with cancer, how do you feel? Maybe sad, like you need to be extra kind to them, right? You feel like they are fragile and need special attention. You feel sorry for them. You might feel like they can’t do things for themselves. You might experience an irrational fear of them. (And not knowing that fear is part of the reason we say unintentionally dismissive statements to them.) And you are glad you don’t have it.
Our thinking about cancer patients can often marginalize them and their experience.
Here are some examples of microaggressions:
Essentially when many people think about cancer, they unintentionally put the person with cancer in a different, lesser class than healthy people.
HOW TO AVOID MICROAGGRESSIONS
Like true microaggressions, the solution lies in educating yourself, being willing to be vulnerable, and asking for direction.
In general, this means that before you speak to your friend with cancer, consider the following.
1. Check your emotions. Seriously, if you are annoyed or feel pissy, even at something unrelated, saying something to your friend with cancer right now may not be a good idea.
2. Ask yourself, “Why do I want to say anything at all?” This question is helpful to ensure your intentions are coming from a loving place. Are you saying something because you feel uncomfortable with their cancer? Or are you saying something because you genuinely want to share your love for them or care about their experience?
3. Own Your Mistakes. Your friend with cancer is just like you, trying to figure this part of their life journey out. Your friend with cancer is just like you, trying to figure this part of their life journey out.
Educate yourself (like you just did by reading this blog post), admit your mistake (if you’ve said the wrong thing), and try again!
Lastly, progress, not perfection, is always the way.