7 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone Who Has Cancer

We all mean well, but some comments are better left unsaid, while others are most appreciated.

When a friend of family member is diagnosed with cancer, there is shock, sadness, and there’s the inevitable question of what to say?

“It’s frightening to hear someone talk about cancer, and we automatically think about ourselves,” says Sarah Kelly, L.C.S.W., coordinator for older adult programs at CancerCare, a free cancer support resource center in New York City. But, she says, try to keep your own feelings in check and focus on the person who has been diagnosed. “You don’t have to fix this situation or say something profound, just being there is huge.”

So what comments should you steer clear of and what should you say instead?
Don’t Say…

“Everything is going to be fine.” The truth is, you don’t know that everything is going to be fine, and this comment can sound dismissive, says Kelly. Steer clear of anything that sounds like cheerleading such as, “You’ll be okay,” or “You’ll get through this and come out even better than before.” “Sometimes cheerleading can get annoying,” says Michele Ryan, breast cancer survivor and author of Cancer: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was First Diagnosed: Tips and Advice From a Survivor. “You might have been throwing up all night, feel terrible, and the last thing you want to hear is cheerleading.”

“I know what you’re going through is difficult.” On the surface this sounds sympathetic, but the problem with this comment is that you really don’t know what the person is going thorough. Even if you have had cancer yourself, everyone’s experience with the disease is different. Don’t try to put yourself in the person’s shoes, it diminishes what they are going through.

“Well, at least you got a good kind of cancer.” Is there really a “good” kind of cancer?

“God never gives you more than you can handle.” “Cancer is not part of a grand plan,” says Margaret Lesh, author of Let Me Get This Off My Chest: A Breast Cancer Survivor Over-Shares. Michele Ryan agrees. “I don’t care how religious or non-religious you are,” she says. “I don’t think God wants to give anyone cancer.”

“At least you get new boobs!” This isn’t the moment to look on cancer’s bright side. Really your friend or family member just wants you to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. “The biggest peeve of mine was hearing a comment like this,” says Lesh. “If I could have my old, imperfect, saggy, childbirth-ravaged breasts back, I would. The new ones are not the same.” Just don’t.

“Maybe you should have exercised more/eaten more vegetables, etc.” Comments like these and “How did you get it?” sound suspiciously like blame and imply that the person who got cancer is at fault. The last thing you want to do is blame someone who is dealing with such a difficult experience.
Nothing. This can be the worst of all responses. “People bring their own feelings and experiences to the situation, and a lot of them check out,” says Ryan, who says eighty percent of the people in her life had a hard time dealing with her diagnosis. “They ask a couple of questions when you tell them about the diagnosis and then they are gone.” This can feel like abandonment and be incredibly hurtful. If you’re having trouble coping with a friend or family member’s diagnosis, better to tell the person and talk about it, says CancerCare’s Kelly. That way, they feel like you are there for them.

Do say…

“I’m not sure what to say right now, but I want you to know I love you.” This acknowledges that you feel awkward, but let’s the person know in a very simple way that you care.

“How are you really doing?” “All friendships are different, but with my best friend, I really appreciated when she would sit down with me and ask me to tell her everything I was feeling and going through,” says Ryan.

“We’re going to get through this together.” This let’s your friend or family member know that you’re not going anywhere, and they can be counted on through all the ups and downs.

“You’ve got this!” “The acknowledgment was the important thing when I was going through cancer,” says Lesh. “Knowing that other people cared helped me to realize that I was not alone. Something simple and positive such as ‘You’ve got this!’ is good.”

“Count on me for dinners/picking up the kids/taking you to the doctor,” Routine and daily tasks such as cooking meals, laundry, and grocery shopping can be a lot to handle when someone is going through treatment. Instead of saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” offer to do specific chores to help out. “As a dog owner, I know I feel guilty when my dog doesn’t get her walks,” says Lesh. “This could be a real weight off of someone going through treatment. Our pets are part of the family, too, and may fly under the radar when a household is dealing with cancer.”

One more thing you can do to help: sit with your friend during chemo treatments, or go to the hospital to be with family members during surgery. “My friends sat with my husband, which was so needed and I was so thankful for that,” says Ryan. “Caregivers can get lost and they need support, too.”

By Ellen Breslau
July 2015

Comments

  1. Grace Jones says:

    You are correct. The things you should say are helpful and supportive. Wendell heard all the things you shouldn’t say too. However, he deeply appreciated the concern expressed by his many friends and business colleagues. Phone calls cheered him up. Caring for him was a team effort, not only our children but our grandchildren as well often pulled night duty so the bread winners and principal care givers could sleep. We opted for Hospice in the home and I am so pleased with the kind, helpful support that group offered.

  2. Thank you for this amazing post. I was told the “God never gives you more than you can handle” when my sister (whom I raised as my own child) was diagnosed with primary liver cancer at the age of 15. All I could think was: so if she and I were weaker people, she wouldn’t be sick? Which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever. That phrase implies that strong people can endure cancer, and god would not ‘give’ cancer to the weak. Ridiculous.

  3. Maria Gonzalez says:

    I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in 1998. I was terrified but grew less afraid as I knew that the type of cancer I had was not likely to spread and that treatment involved radiation only.
    I went along with my life as a nurse practitioner and in 2004 started having some symptoms that were very strange as far as mets from a breast primary goes. I was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer/neuroendocrine cancer and by the time the diagnosis came, I had liver involvement and as I write this, I await yet another treatment for this cancer.
    I could not have made my life what it is without the people who have surrounded me with love and caring. We can’t do this alone and my partner is my biggest support system. He is the most amazing man I have ever met; open, kind, loving, caring, loving me through all of my fears and my conquests as I live my life a day at a time.
    I appreciate life more, know that I am here for a brief time only, and therefore, I have quality!
    Having cancer is not about the days we will live with it, but what we gain from traveling the path that this cancer brings. This includes the amazing, kind, wonderful people who are in my life and will be until I cease to be.
    I have had to tell many that hearing such thoughtless things as “cancer again?” You must be a “cancer maker”, or “all you need to do is pull yourself up by the boot straps and you will be okay!” They hear it!
    So glad I could share here. Good luck with your book and your aspirations. I look forward to reading the book!

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