What NOT to Say to Someone with Cancer

Posted by Turban Diva on 3/12/2017 to FAQ
What NOT to Say to Someone with Cancer
In my previous blog post, I talked about Ways to Help Someone with Cancer

On a regular basis, I talk to folks that are overwhelmed with their new diagnosis, and don't know what to do next.  I often hear, "I can't believe she/he said that when I told them I had cancer!"

This post is about what NOT to say.

While everyone's experience with cancer is unique, phrases you feel are supportive can actually have the opposite effect.  

This is a time when it is more important to LISTEN than to talk.

Quite often, well intentioned comments take on a different interpretation when someone is facing a life-threatening disease.  No matter who it is - a family member, a friend, or even just an acquaintance - when someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, you want to say the right thing.  

The message you want to get across is, "I love you, I'm concerned, and I want to support you in whatever way I can." 

It seems simple, but in the process of trying to sound supportive, comments can have an opposite effect when their frame of reference is the challenges of going through cancer treatment.

Avoid Above all, don't avoid them. 
You'd be hard-pressed to find a cancer patient who would rather have a friend not reach out at all than say the wrong thing. 

Simply put, don't ignore the person. 

Patients have told me, "You really find out who your friends are when you have cancer." But I don't think this is entirely true.  

What you learn about is your friend's ability to deal with the situation.

We are not taught how to talk to someone who is ill or may be facing a terminal disease.  Someone you hardly know may be gifted at comforting people, while your best friend may feel so overwhelmed with the idea of losing you that they don't know what to say.

With cancer treatment, we have good days and bad days.  fun

It's important to keep life as normal as possible, and encourage them to participate in activities just as they usually would.  

If it's a day when they feel lousy, having company feels like they have to entertain when they don't have the energy.  But it's better to ask if they would like company or want to do something rather than avoid them.

This is not about you, and as upsetting as it is to learn someone you love has cancer, they need your support and concern, not drama and negativity.  

Don't be offended if it's a day when they prefer time alone, and ask again next time!  

Shut up
Don't talk about other people with cancer, especially if they had any complications. One of the ways we connect with others is to point out things we have in common, such as people or circumstances.  However, this is not a path that is comforting to a cancer patient. 

On that note, I can't believe how many people told me I had to read a certain book or watch a movie about someone who went through a horrible cancer experience and died, but it was a great story.  How is that helpful?  I wanted to watch comedies to keep up my spirits, not depressing violin-laden Hollywood dramas.  

What can be helpful is to talk to others that are going through a similar experience.  There are typically local support groups or discussion groups online.  Many hospitals and cancer centers have Navigational Nurses to provide support, treatment guidelines and local resources.

bodyDon't say: "At least you look skinny." Your friend may look different, but don't point out physical changes. People with cancer are acutely aware of how much weight they have gained or lost, how much hair they have lost, or how pale they might look.  

Comments such as, "But you look so healthy," or "Don't worry, you look great, ' would ordinarily be compliments, but can actually come across as minimizing their concerns.  

Other changes in their appearance may not be visible to you, and can be upsetting to them. It is important that they have the space to adjust and find a way to manage these. 

  • Don't say they are lucky to have one kind of cancer rather than another, which downplays what they are going through. There's nothing lucky about having cancer; there is no such thing as a "good cancer." It's not a "blessing" or a "gift," even when they are maintaining a positive attitude.
  • Don't say "I know how you feel," because you can't possibly know.
    Better to ask, "Do you want to talk about how you feel?"

miracle cure
Don't try to be their doctor. This is the role of health care practitioners, and patients are bombarded with information and misinformation. They may have to make decisions about their treatment based on this, sometimes within a short time period. No two cancers are alike, and your objective is to listen rather than try to give advice. 

This includes not loading them up with information about "miracle cures." Although there is continual progress in treatment options, Facebook and social media are not the most accurate source of medical information, and many of the posts are hoaxes.  

You can ASK if they would like to you pass on information, but don't force it on them.

  • Don't suggest that their lifestyle or attitude is to blame for the disease. One of their first questions was probably, "How did this happen?" They are already scrutinizing their lifetime of habits trying to figure out what they "did wrong."  
Even subtle remarks, like asking someone who was diagnosed with lung cancer if they were ever a smoker, is not appropriate.  People with the healthiest of lifestyles can have cancer. Many factors influence cancer risk, specific causes are still unknown, and blame is not helpful.

CareDon't say: "You're so strong," or "Be strong, or "Stay positive."  
Think about it, if you were feeling at your worst and someone said this to you, how would you feel?  

These phrases can make a patient feel like they can't or shouldn't show any vulnerability.  When your hair is falling out and your body/energy are becoming more unfamiliar every day, a good cry can be the best medicine.  

Some days you just don't have the energy to feel positive, and having someone tell you to be strong and positive makes you want to scream!

Especially if they have always had a take-charge attitude, a cancer diagnosis and the side effects of treatment can make them feel like they have lost control of their life.  Allowing others to help when they need it is extremely difficult and even embarrassing.

This is a good time to be aware of their needs, and try to be specific.  Treatment typically makes their mind foggy, forgetful and easily overwhelmed.  Asking," Can I help?" is vague and suggests helplessness.  "What can I do to make your day easier?" can guide them to focus on a task or even a project you can do together.  

  • Don't use platitudes. They might think/say them to empower themselves, but when they come from someone else at the wrong moment, comments like these can feel shallow or patronizing.  
These are statements like:

"Everything happens for a reason."
"It's all part of God's plan."
"You can beat this," "You're a survivor."

Remember that this is not a "battle" to win or lose.  Whether treatment is ultimately successful or if the cancer is terminal, it's not because they did something right or wrong.

What are some of the things you wish people didn't say to you?  

We'd love to read your thoughts in the comments below.


Date 3/13/2017
Very nicely written....I am a survivor, so just wanted to read the information. The one thing that upset me when I was going thru chemo and my hair was falling out.....my Dr. on one of my visits/checkups said to me..."I don't know what is it about you women and losing your hair"! I was so angry with his ignorance.....need to start there too!!! Thank you!!!
Date 3/13/2017
Laurie Andreoni
Judy, thanks so much for your feedback, and that is a good point about the doctors. My first surgeon was an absolute oaf who also made endless inappropriate statements (and a misdiagnosis!) I immediately got a new doctor, and everyone was wonderful in that facility. I hear a lot of stories similar to yours, and you are correct, it is good material for a future post. Many people feel they have to follow whatever the first doctor tells them, even if they don't feel comfortable, and that is not true - you can get a second or third opinion. If I hadn't done so, I would not have received the correct diagnosis and treatment, and probably wouldn't be here today. xoxo
Date 4/11/2017
I am a 7 year ovarian cancer survivor. I can say with great certainty that the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, SC has customer service down to the people who park your car or give directions on how to find a particular room. As to what not to say, I could add two comments: 1. How are your feeling today? 2. How's your wife doing? (addressed by everyone to my husband.) Everyone wants to know because they care. Here's where the patient and/or famiy/friends can help. Set up a free website (such as CaringBridge) that someone else can keep up (so simple) and the patient when she begins to show some interest in what her family and friends are writing back. It was and still is a great source of comfort and support. I never knew I had so many people who cared about me! Inspiring!
Date 4/11/2017
Laurie Andreoni
Thanks for the additions, Julie! CaringBridge.com is wonderful, as is CarePages.com. It makes it so easy for the patient and/or the family to post updates without making dozens of phone calls or emails. Everyone can check in, read and/or respond at their convenience.

Add Comment