Attitude About Platitudes

Posted on: May 16th, 2015 by

Since breast cancer diagnosis and throughout my survivorship, I have crossed paths with well-meaning folks who make blanket statements to comfort me. It’s sometimes difficult for those not in the cancer world to sit with the knowledge that someone has/has had cancer, let alone has had difficulty coping. So people try to pretty it up by attempting to sell seemingly harmless platitudes.

Like many who’ve had/have cancer and/or a variety of other diseases/conditions, I’ve heard my share of drivel, but I wanted to share two platitudes that irk me to no end. And I know the people who say them tend to mean well, but the truth is, for me, these platitudes do more harm than good.

“There’s a reason for everything.” No, sometimes there is no reason for the shitstorm called cancer. In my world view, many things happen randomly. There is no grand world order, and there is no real reason why my cells went from healthy to stealthy. Sure, there are biological reasons, but from the universe’s perspective, there’s no real reason I got cancer.

I wasn’t being punished for some unforgivable sin. I didn’t learn a valuable lesson, other than how precious life really is. But I’m not grateful to cancer for this life lesson. The disease certainly didn’t make me a better person: I’ve not become more ethical, moral, kinder, and giving. I’d like to think I have always had these qualities, and perhaps I’ve become a better person over time, but it’s through my own natural evolution — not because I had cancer.

In addition, I didn’t get cancer because the universe was trying to send me a special message or because I was the chosen one.

“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I’ve heard this one a lot, and boy-oh-boy does this really anger me. So let me open Pandora’s box on this tricky subject because each person has his/her own religious beliefs or lack, thereof. Everyone is different in this respect, and I respect others’ faiths or lack of faith. My goal is not to offend, but to show how this platitude is fallacious in its reasoning.

I’ve discussed my personal faith and relationship with God in a previous post. And though I believe that so many things in the world happen randomly, I also have a strong faith and personal relationship with God, though I am not a fan of organized religion. What I’m about to discuss is my world view.

The “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” platitude is really harmful. First of all, I don’t blame God for giving me cancer. A higher power didn’t give me the disease for some higher purpose. Cancer is not a product of divine order. Cancer has biological reasons, as I said before, but attributing it to God is unfair to God and to the affected person.

Secondly, cancer did give me more than I could handle. Like most people, I tried my best to improve my survival rate by choosing the best possible treatments for me.

Yes, I survived thus far. I’m alive and happy and joyful to be alive.

But cancer was more than I could handle.

This disease compromised my physical health, but just as important, cancer did its number on my mental health. Without the proper treatments, I would never have endured.

Like so many people, I did all I could to survive. I did not kick cancer’s ass; in fact, cancer kicked mine pretty good.

I wish people would stop telling me there was a divine reason for my having had cancer and for my survival. A divine power did not give me cancer as a test. And I don’t know why I survived so far. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to be alive. But I’m not grateful to cancer.


bamboo and sun

What are some platitudes you have heard?

How do you deal/have you dealt with such platitudes?

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20 Responses to Attitude About Platitudes

  1. Carolyn Thomas had this to say about that:

    Beth! This post is so good that I wish I’d written it myself! You’ve captured perfectly my own reflexive cringe at hearing those two key platitudes. I’ve written about this subject, too, but not as succinctly as you’ve managed to do here. THANK YOU for this!

    No matter what the diagnosis, such platitudes say more about the person who delivers them than it does about the actual reality of the patient being platitudinized!


    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Carolyn, thank you so much! I agree that the platitudes reveal more about those who say them than the recipients. I love that word: “platitudinized.” Very cool.

  2. Alene Nitzky had this to say about that:

    Let me start with the qualification that I have not experienced cancer first hand. As an oncology nurse, I have some thoughts about this “platitude phenomenon”. These platitudes are often spoken in regard to other types of life’s challenges too. And they can equally hurtful and angering to the person who is personally dealing with cancer or _______ (insert difficult circumstance of choice).

    It comes down to several issues: one is the lack of education around cancer, most people, even though they know other people with cancer or may have even had a family member who has it, there is still a lack of good, realistic information that trickles down to the masses. The misinformation far outpaces the good information, just do an internet search on any health-related topic.

    And fear, partially as a result of ignorance and misinformation, also comes into play. People don’t know what to say and they are paralyzed by fear, so they come out with these platitudes, that have no connection to reality. Fear really does a number on people, they avoid things they are afraid of, and don’t bother to learn about them or confront them.

    Short of wearing a button that says “go ahead, ask me about my cancer” I don’t know any way to make people gain the true empathy and social skills to be able to approach someone with appropriate sensitivity. However some public health education would go a long way toward correcting much of the misinformation that leads to people saying stupid things.

    Too many people who have had cancer minimize their own suffering when other people ask about it, and I think the public needs to have a better understanding of just how life changing this experience is. So I would like to see people be more open and raw with their reactions to people who spout platitudes.

    As an observer of people saying these platitudes, I always think an honest approach is best, though I understand it takes energy and some people are just not worth it… here’s what comes to my mind.

    To say, “I appreciate your kind intentions, but the truth is, I didn’t ask for this, it has been extremely painful and difficult for me and my family and friends, the pain continues after treatment and is something I’ll live with for the rest of my life, and the fact is, cancer is often the result of a random change in my cells, and it could just as easily happen to you. And I’m happy to be alive but it didn’t feel like anybody, especially not God was helping me I was in so much physical and mental pain. It would be kinder/more helpful/pleasing/etc. to me if you would learn the facts about cancer, then you would know what to say when you find out someone has it.”

    I understand that it’s not an easy solution and it might not even work, but sometimes don’t you just want to let ’em have it?

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Alene, thank you for your comprehensive response to my post. You are right: it’s not just cancer that people respond to with platitudes. I love what you wrote here, especially your response to these platitude givers.

      When I was undergoing treatment, I was too sick and weak for these kinds of comments to register. It was only upon looking back that I could see how these platitudes were so harmful.

      And yes, if I could rewind time, I can think of a few people I would love to let ’em have it!

      As an oncology nurse, I know you have seen and observed so much. I just want to thank you for taking great care of your patients. Oncology nurses are amazing, and I had a great one. In fact, I’ll be writing a post on this topic in the future.

      Thank you for your comment.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Round Up | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  4. Rebecca had this to say about that:

    This is a great post!! I feel the same way you do and I agreed with pretty much everything you said here.

    One of the reasons I decided to blog was to expose those comments that are said during difficult times. I too, hate them, and been told the same ones you listed.They did not help but made me feel worse. Guilty.

    I have a long list of things that were said to me and I hope to talk about them one day. But the one that is the most hurtful, by far, is the one about “you must be paying for something bad you did in your past life…or the present life.” Although it was not directly said to me in those words, the intention was the same. That deserves its own post so one day I will write about how that made me feel.

    The way I have dealt with these comments? When I was going through treatments I did not have the energy to argue. Plus I was scared to lose the “support”. But now I speak up, if something bothers me, I say it. Other times I exclude people from my life. Makes things easier.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Becky!

      I’m so glad you started blogging. I’m sorry these types of comments made you feel guilty. The comment about you paying for something you supposedly did is simply dreadful. That is so wrong. I’m hoping to one day read your post on this subject.

      Good for you for speaking up. At the time these platitudes were said to me I was too sick and weak to speak up. Now I would have a different reaction.

  5. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    You know I am with you all the way on this topic! You said it all so well. Thank you!

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      Thank you, my friend. It was gnawing at me, thinking about what some people say about any disease or condition.

      As always, I appreciate your support.

  6. Eileen@womaninthehat had this to say about that:

    Beth, yes, yes, yes to everything you wrote. I could go on endlessly on this topic. I particularly love your response to those who say, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Why blame God? And like you, cancer kicked my ass with lots of repercussions. Thank you for addressing this important topic.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Eileen. I know you totally get it. And unfortunately, there’s so much collateral damage, too much to write about in one post, but there it is.

  7. Scott Johnson had this to say about that:

    There was so much confusion and miss-communication in my cancer treatment I don’t even mention it–it’s only an extension of the garbage I went through having a bad heart.
    Since I’ve been both seriously ill and seriously miss handled by the medical system my favorite platitude is how lucky I am to be alive. No matter all the unnecessary suffering, isn’t it a miracle I survived–and proof that, in the end, the system does work.
    Take home on this is everyone failed me but the very last people I met before dying. This would be OK for one time deal or if AFTER I was saved the treatment was better than before…
    Thanks for this Beth:-)

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Scott, thank you for reading and commenting on my post. I’m sorry for all the mistreatment and hassles you endured. How lucky you are to be alive; it doesn’t make sense that the system takes credit for this, the very system that failed you.

      I am sorry for all your suffering.

  8. Carrie had this to say about that:

    This is a fantastic post. Thank you for writing it. I agree with everything you have said and have been reflecting on it a lot lately now that I have finished my major courses of treatment and now am on tamoxifen and Herceptin for a clinical trial. I totally respect other’s good intentions in trying to make me feel better. I can’t say I’d do anything differently if the tables were turned. But the one that irks me the most is “You’ll be fine.” I hated that, especially in the beginning because I was not fine. I was far from it. And even now, there is so much uncertainty for my future, I feel like a statement like that does not take into account the trauma I have and continue to endure.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      The “You’ll be fine” platitude is ridiculous. How does anyone even know that one will be fine, especially given the physical and psychological trauma that often continues.

      Thank you for your kind words about my post. I really appreciate it. I hope you are feeling better soon, but be patient. It often takes awhile. The uncertainty we all deal with is really terrible, and people try to soften it with platitudes because they want things to be better, or they are just plain in denial.

  9. Lisa DeFerrari had this to say about that:

    Excellent post, Beth! These two platitudes are particularly offensive, and it strikes me that they’re actually a form of preaching–just the opposite of showing empathy! It’s a shame that these insensitive remarks are so common. Thank you for putting into words so well the many reasons they are inappropriate and just plain wrong.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you so much. I never before thought of these platitudes as forms of preaching, but you’re right!

      People not in the cancer world really don’t understand how much the disease takes a toll on a person. Awful.

      Thank you for reading and commenting on my post.

  10. D. D. Syrdal had this to say about that:

    OMG I hate platitudes with the unholy fire of a thousand thousand suns! I can’t even tell you how much of that bs I put up with after my divorce. I didn’t need to be told that “only God can heal a broken heart.” F that. “You’ll find someone when you’re not looking.” Well, no, actually, I didn’t. I’m still not looking. “The right person is out there.” I doubt it. I should just stop.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi D.D. Syrdal:

      Yes, platitudes are really awful, aren’t they? I’m also divorced, and boy have I heard the ones you mentioned! I hate the blame game for a divorce, as well, such as “Well, some people don’t try hard enough to make it work out.” I feel that if people haven’t walked in one’s shoes, they should keep quiet about offering such harmful platitudes.

      Thank you for your comment.

  11. Gill Slane had this to say about that:

    Very well written and I 100% agree with every word you’ve said. Of all the platitudes that well-meaning people have said to me, one of the ones I find most difficult is:

    “Stay strong, you’re a fighter, you’ll beat this!”

    I think it’s because on the flipside of this one, it smacks of victim-blaming. What about all the many, many people who have cancer and DON’T make it? Did they “fight” any less hard? Did they somehow not want to live as much as I did?

    No, of course not. They wanted to live, but their disease made that impossible. They valued life every bit as much as I do, they did everything they could to stay alive, the same way I do.

    Sometimes, strength and positivity just aren’t enough.

    I recognise that the people saying these things are coming from a place of love. They’re confronted by a terrifying disease and want to comfort themselves by believing that we have some control over it – that we can beat this thing by sheer force of will. But if will alone were enough to beat cancer, the support group I’m part of wouldn’t be dropping like flies.

    Thanks for the article, and I hope you’re feeling very well today.

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