Warning: this post might piss you off. Because it might be about you.

My favorite new-ish word that has been invented lately is “mansplaining.” This would be when someone, often a man, explains something to someone, usually a woman, that she already understands and knows more about than the explainer. As a lawyer, I found this happening to me a lot. Once in a while, a woman lawyer would mansplain to me, but most often it was a male lawyer doing the mansplaining. The times I found it the most grating during my career as a civil rights lawyer were when a mansplainer lectured me about about women’s rights. Funny how those mansplainers never noticed me rolling my eyes.

Now that I am out of the world of the practicing lawyer, the mansplaining I experience is no longer about the law. It’s primarily about cancer. And much more so than when I was a practicing lawyer, it comes from women as much as men, to the point that I feel it needs a new word to describe it: cancersplaining.

Let me give a few examples.

“I know just how you must feel. My aunt had breast cancer, so I had the BRCA testing done. Luckily it came back negative. Have you heard of BRCA?”

“I just read about this diet that is supposed to fight cancer, you should try it.”

“Oh, you have cancer? I just read about this new cancer drug that’s showing promise in mice.”

“Mammograms are so scary. I was so nervous going in for mine. But early screening saves lives. The data is so compelling, isn’t it?”

Here is what I hear when someone says these things:


The thing with splaining of all types is that it exposes to the listener just how little the speaker actually knows about the topic. For example, if you knew anything about cancer, you wouldn’t talk to someone with cancer about some drug showing promise in mice, because that drug won’t be on the market for humans for years, if ever. And loads of drugs that show promise in mice turn out to be useless in people. So sure, cancersplainer, please go on and on about some treatment that won’t be available until I am dead, if it ever becomes available at all. I am a pretty polite person, but internally, whenever someone tells me about some study they read about, I am rolling my eyes.

Also, as many as 30% of women who get early stage breast cancer will go on to get metastatic cancer. Every time I walk past that fucking “early screening saves lives” poster at the mammogram clinic that’s on the way to my oncologist’s office, I want to scream. No, cancersplainer, the data is not compelling, actually. It’s fucking depressing.

Likewise with people who claim to know what cancer is like when they haven’t had it. The emotions involved in having cancer are extremely complex and individual. Saying “I know how you feel” is a fingernails on chalkboard phrase. That is the worst kind of cancersplaining to me. In the words of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, “You’re an orphan, right? You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?” That you read The Fault In Our Stars or saw Terms of Endearment does not mean you know what this is like for me.

Clearly I am worked up here, but let me pause for a moment. Are cancersplainers or other kinds of splainers bad people? No, of course not–usually they are trying to be helpful or to relate to my experience. They’re just really really shitty at it, and their behavior is disrespectful. It is disrespectful to lecture to people, and even more so, to lecture to people who have more experience with a subject than you do. Especially with a topic as profound as having cancer.

What is a better approach? For me, asking questions is what I prefer. I like it when someone asks “What is your treatment regimen like?” instead of telling me “I read about XYZ treatment regimen, you should ask your doctor about it.” Another one I like is “How are you feeling” rather than “You look great, you must be feeling well.” Because, I may look OK, but my emotions may be in the shitter, and maybe I’d like to talk about it. And maybe I don’t want to talk about it, but giving me space to, instead of telling me how I “must” feel, makes me feel more respected.

That said, I can’t presume to speak for all cancer patients in the world. I can only speak for me and what my experience is. So, maybe ask your friends with cancer how they would like to be spoken to. But I am going to crawl out on a limb and guess that they don’t want to be cancersplained to either. And I hope they will chime in here in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Cancersplaining

  1. Oooh, boy. There are a handful of things that I really, really hope I do right in this life. One of them: I don’t want to diminish or invalidate someone else’s experience by mansplaining. I’m glad that you so honestly draw attention to this because I think it’s easy to forget about being aware of what and how we say things to others. In an attempt to sympathize and relate to others, there are many things that we just shouldn’t say … like “I know how you feel.”

    Sometimes when we’re unsure of what to say, some people (like me) might have a propensity to jam the ol’ foot in the mouth if we’re not careful. So, thank you for reminding me to be aware of my words.


  2. The phrase “I know how you feel” is just one that should never be uttered. Even if you have been in the exact same situation before, you don’t know how the other person feels – you know how you felt in the same situation.

    I love “mansplaning” though. Hadn’t heard that before but it is a serious pet peeve of mine. I really hate being in a museum or something and hearing someone feeding their kids a bunch of bull about whatever the exhibit is. I don’t know, let’s look it up is a pretty good answer.

  3. HA! I told you that the “You look great so I know you are feeling great!” for some reason irritated the snot out of me. I wasn’t going to wear sack cloth and ashes–I was working and had kids at home. But trust me, no one feels great after 10 chemos although how does Amy Robach (gorgeous) do it? Was it because I wanted sympathy? I don’t know, maybe but the most brazen comment was always the one that asked if I was going to live. Seriously! I just think of a family friend who, while in the 4th grade said to me, “I hate morons, they’re stupid!”……………………………I am guilty though of relaying the newest cure/treatment (I did it not too long ago to a friend whose daughter was a very sick diabetic)–I thought that I was giving someone hope. I’ll refrain from moronic remarks such as these from now on. I will still make moronic remarks (ask my daughters–they are always calling something to attention) though.

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