15 Things Never To Say To Someone With Cancer
“Oh, I know someone who died from that!”
As someone who has battled 4 different cancers on three separate occasions, I have heard the good, the bad and the ugly from folks who almost all meant well. For every kind comment made to someone battling cancer, there is one that has the opposite effect.
While talking to someone with cancer it is important that you get across that you are there for them (if indeed you plan to be there for them).
It is generally not helpful to say, “Let me know what I can do to help.” You are placing the work of thinking up something to ask of you on the cancer patient who does not know how much effort you intend to put into assisting them or what would be a pleasure for you to do or what you would hate. It is much better to say, “I make a mean casserole, why don’t I bring one over next Wednesday?” or “I walk my dog in the same neighborhood, I will be glad to stop by daily and take your dog for a walk with mine.” Or, “Can I take you to Chemo, radiation or a Doctor’s appointment?”
- Never try to give advice like, “I heard about this holistic approach that would save you from chemotherapy.” The cancer patient has a team of medical staff on his or her side giving advice and planning treatment. Your advice about the newest diet may interfere with their current treatment plan. Advice like this comes from all sorts of folks, many of whom have never had to fight cancer. If they are already going a natural routine, do not suggest they go with chemo and radiation. Unless you are a world class Oncologist, your opinion is not helpful and can harm the cancer patient.
- “I know exactly how you feel.” Even though you may want to commiserate, each cancer diagnosis and treatment are very different from what another felt and another went through. The cancer patient may want to say, “You have no idea what I am going through” but feels reluctant to speak up as they do not want to hurt your feelings. It is the cancer patient whose feelings are important at this difficult time in their lives. It is about them – not about you.
- “My aunt died from that.” I have heard those exact words or something in the same vein from a number of folks. You may expect to hear a cancer patient say something like, “I only want to focus on the positive so let’s change the subject” but only if they feel strong enough to say something like that. I always found it shocking to hear folks talk about people they know who died from cancer. The cancer patients are trying their best to be as positive and focused as possible and your tales of who you know who died only brings the fear to the forefront.
- “Didn’t you used to smoke?” or “I bet you wish you’d lost those extra pounds now?” Statements like that are the same as blaming a cancer patients’ cancer on them. These sorts of ideas may be something the patient is struggling with on their own but there is no reason to point them out. It is not helpful and can actually be hurtful.
- “Lots of people are surviving that kind of cancer.” Feeling that your friend or acquaintance may have a better chance of survival than they would have years ago does not mean that is something you should share because it may not be true for the patient and can belittle the feelings they may have about their diagnosis and treatment.
- “You have lost so much weight” That weight loss may be due to the difficult treatment the patient is going through. While they may have had a few pounds to lose, the diagnosis and treatment for cancer is not a “diet” anyone would chose to go through.
- “You are so strong.” Or “You are so brave” Those were always pet peeves of mine. I always wanted to say, “What I am is practical. Get cancer – get treatment. There is nothing brave about it. Sometimes I am so scared I can hardly stand it. Don’t make me be brave on top of everything I am going through right now!” I always wanted to say something like that but tried to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt and assume they were trying to be kind. There was always that nagging resentment about being forced to be brave or strong.
- “Are you worried about the changes to your body?” They may be very worried about the scars, loss of body parts, side effects and a variety of changes that cancer can bring about. You do not need to remind them about those issues. They have probably already thought about those issues countless times without you reminding them.
- “Tell me exactly what was your diagnosis?” First of all, it is none of your business. Pathology reports are complicated, and the cancer patient may have full understanding and be fully aware of how to discuss it or – they may find the whole issue overwhelming. They have cancer – now you expect them to spout out their diagnosis like a Doctor. They have enough to deal with. If they bring it up – it is ok to talk with them about it but I doubt very many cancer patients are anxious and willing to discuss this deeply personal subject.