Childhood Cancer

Why I’m Tired of Being Told I’m Strong

This might be a controversial post, but I owe it to the moms I’ve met on this journey. I owe it to those of you who want to best show up for the people you care about. There are now 45 moms in my cancer support group, and it seems that we all share the same sentiment. We know everyone means well, but we are tired of being told we’re strong. It’s something that comes up from time-to-time, and I sent this post to a few of my friends who are in treatment. If you told me how strong I am, or that I’m brave, or that Margot is a warrior, I am truly grateful for your kindness. Really. There is no need to apologize.

The posts I’ve written have helped friends and family members better support loved ones after a cancer diagnosis, and I want to do everything I can to help people understand what these words mean to us. 

How to support someone immediately after a cancer diagnosis

What not to say to someone going through cancer treatment

How to support someone through cancer treatment

Some might think I sound ungrateful. Others will say I’m telling people what to say and that that’s not ok. Imagine moments of crisis that your’e just  being told you’re strong over and over again. Truthfully, I am not interested in hearing what someone thinks about how I feel when someone tells me what I am while I’m just trying to survive this nightmare. I’m so used to hearing it at this point that I’m mostly able to brush it off, but the words are still triggering. 

When we are described as strong while walking through trauma, we hear you telling us that we are doing ok. That we are strong enough to handle this – almost that it’s better it’s us than you. That we had it coming. You are labeling us as something we do not feel we are because we are not strong enough for this. The fact is (and yes, it’s a fact) that we do not always feel strong. Calling someone strong is not an insult, but when you assign any sort of label to someone, you’re diminishing their experience(s). You are telling someone what they are, but what happens when they don’t feel that way? 

I realize that there are things I do that make me appear strong. Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing ok, but I never feel strong enough to go through this. The fundraising, awareness, and doing everything I can for Margot? That’s not strength. It’s love. If someone messaged me and told me they saw how evident my love was and that they could see how much I cared about other children, I’d be so touched. I am not strong. I am a mom without any other options. What is the alternative? To run? To stop advocating for her? To give up and let her not take her meds? I have no choice. Trust me when I tell you that no parent is strong enough to go through this.

I did not feel strong when I cried on the bathroom floor every single night the first few months of treatment, but people kept telling me how strong I was and how my tiny not even 30 lb. toddler was a warrior. Has anyone image searched that word? She is anything but. Is she incredible? Does she radiate joy? Yes. Warrior? No. 

So what can you say instead? 

I am thinking of you.
I am here with you.
Sending you love. 
I am so sorry you’re going through this. It’s so unfair. 
I hate this for you. 

This applies to fertility, loss, health issues, divorce, or really, any trauma. Let’s stop telling people what they are and show up for them in a way that lets them tell us how they feel. 

And here are the reactions from the my friends (all moms of little ones in treatment) who read the post before I hit publish. They all gave me permission to share their responses to my post. 

 

It’s beautifully written and so very true. It’s like you took the words out of my mouth. It would mean 100 times more to me if someone told me they can see the love I have for my children as we navigate this journey. One of my friends told me the other day after a short visit that she was expecting the kids to be different, sad even. But instead of sad, they were happy and that’s a testament to how we are coping and handling the shitty cards we were dealt. It made me step back and think you’re right. I’m not strong, I’m just trying to get through the days and making sure my family feels loved. 

 

Love it and now I’m crying. The worst is when someone tells you you’re strong and your child is a warrior in one sentence.

 

I love it. I think people need to hear it because so many people don’t know what to say! I don’t hate it as much as “how’s life?” but I have grown to find it annoying. Because I am definitely not strong. I am just surviving. The sending you love, thinking of you texts are way more impactful. Definitely hate “let me know if there’s anything I can do!” 

 

This feels like you took the words out of my mouth. Other than someone calling her a warrior (which gives me a visceral reaction every time), being called strong is my second least favorite thing people say when trying to be supportive. It feels like it’s brushing off all of the hard work and heartache and tears that go into making it through each day. We’re making it through because we have to, not because we’re strong.

 

Ah I’m crying. We are not strong enough. This is really brave.

 

I’m not personally triggered by being called strong, but I did get a bit emotional when you mentioned how powerful it would be if the conversation shifted to love rather than strength. Even though it’s well intentioned, “You’re so strong” or “I don’t know how you do it” can feel a bit lonely, almost like someone telling you they can’t relate at the exact time you’re longing to feel seen and supported. Instead of telling me how strong I am for being forced to walk this path, let me know you’re here and willing to walk beside me.

 

They wouldn’t be so quick to call us brave if they saw us crying in the closet, but that’s not what people want to hear about.

 

As always, you are able to put into words exactly what I’m thinking. This message is so important.

16 comments
Leave a comment
  • I cannot claim to be anything close to your experience (I don’t even have kids yet) but I am in the process of losing a parent to a very cruel disease and I just wanted to say that these words will help so many people. Hearing I’m strong when most days I can’t do anything more than write like 2 emails for work is almost guilt-trippy even though it’s meant so well. Anyway just wanted to say thank you – this applies to so much. Maybe the overall message is empathy vs projection in talking to someone going through something hard.

  • Omg. THIS. Thank you. I was a patient at Lurie children’s back when I was younger and I hated when people would call me strong or a “warrior”. Just a girl who was trying to get through!

    1. Somehow, warrior is a word often used when kids are sick and I just don’t get it at all. Has no one image searched warrior? and battles are won and lost – it’s the worst language that implies someone maybe didn’t fight hard enough. 💔

  • I’m so sorry Margot and her people have to go through this. I’m sharing the link to a blog post by a young woman (19 years old) who is currently undergoing chemo for breast cancer. Her reaction to people telling her she’s strong mirrors and reinforces your own. As she says, she’s facing this because she has no choice.
    https://mirandamckeon.com/blog/youaresostrong

  • Alternatively, people mean well and nothing anyone could ever say will ease the pain of what you are going through. I have managed a chronic and hellacious medical issue with my daughter and I learned that I was upset with how people would word things because I was, well, upset. Trust me when I say it’s such a lighter load when you approach it from a place of appreciation and giving people the benefit of the doubt that they truly have good intentions. I wish you and your daughter love and light. God works wonders.

    1. I am so sorry you’ve had to go through that. Like I said, I know people mean well and I always appreciate that. It is my hope that someone remembers this post when someone they love goes through something.

  • Forgot to mention. I have always LOVED when people graciously call me and/or my daughter strong because it gives me a boost and lifts my spirit. I think it’s important to remember there is no right/wrong or hard and fast rules when it comes to these deeply delicate matters. Sending love.

  • Thank you for this. I’m a long time reader of your blog, and have held all of you in my heart during all of this. I hope that your post touches people who read it, and help them understand ways to better support and be present for the people in their lives who are going through difficult times.

    When I started my cancer journey, I wasn’t aware of the phrase ‘toxic positivity’ I just knew that even if people meant well, I’m not strong, I’m not a warrior. I didn’t choose this path – I can only walk it as gracefully as I can (and embracing the times I break down, swear, and go out and smash some bricks with a hammer).

    Hugs.