Figuring out what to say to someone with cancer or someone who is going through cancer treatment can be really difficult. You may want to say something but don’t know how or you may not be sure what would be the right thing to say. To be honest, there is no right thing to say to a cancer patient. Throughout my cancer journey, I’ve had some upsetting things said to me and I’ve had questions asked that are hard to answer. After searching the internet, I decided to write my own post about what not to say to a cancer patient. These are all just my ideas and opinions and hopefully they can help you in some way!
Don’t say: “How have things been?” or “What have you been up to?”
Besides feeling like garbage all of the time and going through chemotherapy, things have been pretty okay, I guess? Don’t get me wrong: it is very nice to be asked how I am and how I’m doing but being asked questions such as the ones above (how have things been/what have you been up to) forces cancer patients to reflect on what life has truly been like which typically includes treatment, scans, tests, appointments, and a whole lot of side effects. Reflecting on all of this and re-telling the story over and over allows for reality to sink in. And it sucks.
Don’t say: “You still have your hair!”
People may think that saying this is positive, but it hasn’t necessarily felt positive for me. Yes, I still have my long hair and I am thankful for that but what I’m not thankful for is the handfuls of hair that fall out of my head every single time I comb it or wash it. It’s actually quite traumatizing.
Don’t say: “Let me know if I can do anything!” if you don’t really mean it.
I’ve noticed that this phrase has become so common and it’s an expression that seems right to say to someone fighting cancer or dealing with a cancer diagnosis. But don’t offer to do something for the cancer patient if you know you won’t actually do it. I’ve found that it’s better to just do something or to be specific when you’re asking whether or not the cancer patient needs something done. For example, some of my friends have brought me flowers unexpectedly and some neighbours have dropped of food which is wonderful. I’ve had friends and family friends offer to drive me to treatments and appointments. Try saying something like: “Do you need anything from the grocery store or pharmacy?” It is important to be specific in your asking and it will help a lot.
Don’t say: “What do you need?”
This kind of goes hand in hand with the last paragraph but sometimes being asked what it is that I need is a very difficult question to answer because I don’t always know. But prayers are always good.
Don’t say: “Were you not careful in the sun?” or “But you were always so careful in the sun!”
Believe it or not, even the most careful people in the sun can get skin cancer. I am and have always been one of the most careful people in the sun which is one of the reasons why my heart is broken.
Don’t say: “You’re so young!”
Yes. I am aware that I’m only 20 and have cancer.
Don’t say: “It could be worse.”
You are right, it could be. But that doesn’t mean that this doesn’t suck, too. Don’t tell me how “lucky” I am that it wasn’t breast cancer or lung cancer (or any other kind of cancer) because just so you know, cancer sucks no matter what kind it is.
Don’t give me advice on what you think I should be doing in regards to treatment.
Thanks but no thanks. Do you have a PhD in medicine? Have you studied my case? I’ll leave the advice up to my oncologist. Do not put me down for choosing to do the treatment that I am doing. Do not tell me what I should try or why I should try it, I’m just trying to get through one day at a time.
Don’t say: Nothing.
Don’t ignore a cancer patient just because you’re not sure what to say to them. We understand that it’s awkward. We understand that people don’t know what to say. But it’s worse when they say nothing at all. Telling me that you don’t know how to handle my cancer diagnosis makes me mad. You don’t know how to handle it? Good to know, because I’m the one who had it happen to them and the one who has to live through it each and every day.
Life is not easy for cancer patients.
We are constantly being pulled in different directions and trying to keep our head above the water. We are constantly treading water even when it seems easier to sink.
Here are some things I love hearing:
Do say: “No need to respond.”
I really have appreciated all of the messages and kind words I have received but being so tired, sometimes I forget to reply (chemo brain problems). When I don’t reply, I feel bad for not replying. Having someone say “no need to respond” after sending me a nice message would make me feel so much better if I did forget to respond. It eliminates some of the pressure.
Do say: “You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”
Saying something simple yet so thoughtful like this warms my heart. It means so much to know that people are praying for me and keeping me in their thoughts and it has helped me so much.
Do say: “I’m sorry.”
Sometimes saying “sorry,” is enough. It’s sincere and simple.
Do say: “What are you feeling?”
Saying “what,” instead of “how,” opens up the conversation so much more. We can tell you so much more of what we are feeling, rather than how we are feeling.
I encourage you to speak from the heart to someone with cancer or someone who is going through active cancer treatment. Yes, it can be awkward but we as cancer patients know that it can be awkward so try not to stress too much. If you say the wrong thing, it’s okay. It’s a learning process for everyone who has been affected by a cancer diagnosis.
Just know that silence sometimes hurts more than words do.
Hope you found this post insightful!