Having cancer is one of the most difficult experiences a person can go through. While it’s completely natural to want to help when someone tells you they have cancer, there are certain things you might be tempted to say that actually do more harm than good.
Here are 19 things you shouldn’t say to someone with cancer:
1. “At least you don’t have XYZ type of cancer.”
I appreciate you looking on the bright side of things, but that doesn’t really make me feel any better.
Cancer is cancer. Naming other cancers doesn’t change the fact that I do have a type of cancer, even though it might not be as severe.
2. “Your hair might not fall out.”
Great, thanks. But what happens if it does?
Chances are, the chemo will at least cause my hair to become more thin and brittle. Unfortunately, telling me that won’t happen isn’t going to change anything… but thanks for getting my hopes up.
3. “Mortality rates have gone down in recent years.”
Don’t you think I’ve thought about death enough? Please don’t make me think about it anymore.
That’s great that the mortality rate has gone down, but I’d rather not be lumped in with a group of millions of other patients. My case is its own, and you don’t know the prognosis for my exact type and stage of cancer.
4. “You should try XYZ type of treatment. I’ve heard it works really well.”
I’ll stick to advice from someone with a medical degree, thanks.
I know you’re just trying to help, but being told by twenty different people which treatments they think would work best doesn’t accomplish anything, except maybe confusing me and causing me to doubt the doctor treating me.
5. “You should get a second opinion. Maybe they’re wrong.”
Yes, many doctors do recommend a second opinion. It can’t hurt. But, no, that’s not going to magically cure my cancer.
Scheduling an appointment to get a second opinion will only get my hopes up, and, chances are, they’re going to find the same thing the first doctor found.
6. “You don’t look like you have cancer.”
What am I supposed to look like? Frail and weak, with a scarf atop my head to hide my thinning hair?
It may seem to you like you’re giving me a compliment, but it’s not really a compliment at all. You’re trying to fit me in to your vision of what a cancer patient should look like.
7. “You’re not going to die.”
Really? Are you a psychic?
Yes, I know the odds are on my side, but, no, I don’t want to hear that from you. In fact, I’d rather not talk about death at all. I know that it’s so often associated with cancer, but I’d rather focus on getting through treatments and winning this battle.
8. “You look like you lost weight! Great job!”
Chances are, it has more to do with the chemo than my exercise regimen. I’d rather be ten pounds heavier and not be going through treatment.
Again, this may seem like a compliment, but it’s quite the opposite. I did not choose chemo to be my new weight loss program, and you definitely should not treat it as such.
9. “Maybe it’s the medicine you’re taking/food you’ve been eating that caused the cancer.”
No, my weird eating habits or medications of choice did not cause my cancer… and, even if they did, what’s the use in bringing it up now? My diagnosis is what it is, and, chances are, it wasn’t caused my something as simple as a medication or food.
Placing blame on such simple items, when causes of cancer are so much more complex than that, is something I don’t really want to deal with right now.
10. “I know what you’re going through.”
Unless you’ve been through this before, no you don’t. I know it’s meant to sound understanding and sympathetic, but it almost sounds like you’re trying to make it all about you. Instead, offer some reassurance that, while you don’t know what I’m going through, you’re thinking of and praying for me.
11. “I’m here if you need anything.”
OK, so this isn’t the absolute worst thing to say. In fact, of everything on this list, it’s definitely the most appropriate response to someone who’s just told you about their cancer diagnosis. But, still, there are much, much better alternatives.
Instead of saying something empty and generic that puts the onus on the person with cancer to ask you for help, make a more specific offer. Maybe offer to bring over dinner one night, or offer to walk my dog while I’m at the treatment center for six hours for chemo. Ask if I need anything at the grocery store, or offer to take me to a movie to get my mind off things. Whatever it is, I’ll appreciate that you took the time to think of something you can do to help me.
Saying that you’ll help with “anything” is nice, but it’s pretty much what everyone says, and I hate to have to ask you for favors. Specificity is better in this case.
12. “I’ve been having a hard time with this/I’m so upset about this.”
Sorry you feel that way, but how do you think I feel? I know that it must be horrible to watch someone close to you go through this, but it’s worse to be living this nightmare yourself.
Instead of talking to me about this, talk to another friend or family member dealing with the same thing. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but I have more important things to worry about.
13. “I know XYZ, who had the same type of cancer as you.”
In your eyes, you might just be trying to tell me a story of someone you know who had luck with chemo and beat this cancer. In my eyes, you don’t know all the facts, and you’re just comparing me to someone else.
Every cancer is different. Every case is different. I’m sorry your friend’s uncle’s daughter-in-law had to deal with that, but I’m not the same as them. Not to mention, sometimes the stories people offer up leave me with more doubts, concerns, and confusion than ever before.
14. “What’s the prognosis/What did the doctor say?”
Please don’t push for information. Chances are, if I wanted you to know, I would have told you. Maybe I need time to process the information, or maybe I’d just rather keep it private. Either way, especially if it’s not the news we were hoping for, it’s better to wait until information is offered up to you.
15. “Stay positive.”
Gee, I’ve never heard that one before. There are worse things you could say, but you should still steer clear of this generic, “Stay positive.”
It’s hard to stay positive dealing with this whole cancer situation, but I’m obviously trying my best. Telling me to stay positive isn’t going to change my outlook at all.
Instead, offer some words of wisdom or kindness, like “You’re in my thoughts and prayers.” Still pretty generic, but at least it doesn’t demand anything of me.
16. “How are you feeling/Are you feeling OK?”
This is kind of like opening Pandora’s box. Are you referring to my cancer, or my overall well-being? It’s a tricky question to answer, so you should probably just avoid asking it.
Instead, ask more particular questions, without being too nosy, like, “How have you been sleeping?” or “Has your body been reacting okay to the chemo?”
This can vary from person to person, but generally this question is just awkward for both people in the conversation.
17. “We can do whatever you want.”
Being diagnosed with cancer isn’t necessarily a death sentence. I just want to be treated how you would normally treat me. Tiptoeing around me, or offering to cater to my every whim or desire, only makes me feel more isolated from my everyday life.
Please, just treat me how you normally would. I’ve had to make enough changes as it is, without people close to me changing how they treat me.
18. “We’re going to beat this.”
I appreciate that you’re implying that we’re in this together, but, unless you can go in my place for my chemo appointments every three weeks, this is my battle.
Instead, say something to the effect of, “You’re going to beat this, and I’m here with you every step of the way.”
This shows that you know that it’s my fight, but it also makes it clear that you’re offering your support and plan to help me in any way you can.
The worst thing you could possibly do is say nothing at all to me. I know it’s hard to come to terms with my condition, and I know that people have different ways of dealing with sad situations, but, please, get over it for my sake.
Don’t wait for me to call you. Reach out and let me know that you’re here for me, and that you’re going to support me through thick and thin. I need my friends and family now more than ever.