Don't Say This to a Cancer Patient - Say This Instead

by Jane Ashley

We know that our friends, co-workers and family love us and want to help us, but sometimes, they don’t know what to say. They say something vague or insensitive without realizing that they missed the mark, and we end up feeling worse, instead of better.

Im Here For You

So … what are some of the things that we’d rather hear?

The truth is that the general public doesn’t understand what having cancer is like — all of the medical appointments, the anxiety of waiting for test results or the intensity of our side effects. So the people around us say things that they “think” we’d like to hear, but their words don’t comfort us at all.

Call me if there’s anything that I can do. Of course, we’re not going to call a friend and ask for help. Instead, here are some concrete tasks that you can volunteer to do.

• Pick up her children after school on chemo day.
• Get her grocery order from Walmart or Kroger.
• Pick up medicines and personal items from the drug store.
• Offer to mow the lawn.
• Make a meal.
• Host your children on a Saturday.

You don’t look sick. If we don’t lose our hair and don’t lose a lot of weight, we may look pretty much that same as we always looked. I always put on makeup every day to boost my spirits, but that didn’t mean that I was okay. Sometimes, the “you don’t look sick ” might be taken as “I don’t think you’re that sick.” These are better things to say.

• You look amazing.
• I love your outfit.
• I’m so glad to see you.
• I’ve missed seeing you.

Let me tell you about my aunt who had cancer. Every patient’s cancer experience is different. Treatments change so that what happened to your aunt fifteen years ago is no longer relevant. Instead of recounting a horror story, it’s best to say something like this.

• I’m sorry that you’re having to face this.
• I admire your strength.
• You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers.

You Dont Look Sick

How were you diagnosed? As we’ve all learned, cancer occurs in awkward, private parts of our body. Many patients are sensitive about the location of their cancer and don’t want to talk about the nitty, gritty details of their diagnosis. Respect your friend’s privacy. Instead, here are some ideas.

• Do you feel like getting together for coffee this week?
• It seems like cancer touches so many people. I hate that you’re facing this.
• I want to bring over a casserole. What’s your favorite?

What are the doctors saying? We can’t barely understand the medical jargon used in cancer treatment . The treatment of cancer is complex and fluid. A single test result can change someone’s treatment plan. Don’t pry and probe into the privacy of someone’s diagnosis. We disclose what we’re comfortable disclosing and prefer not to be bombarded with further questions. Here are some ideas for conversations.

• We’ve been through some tough times together. If you ever need a sounding board, I’m here for you.
• Know that I’m here for you. Text or email me if you’d like to get together.
• Can I bring you something for lunch next week?

Uncle Tommy didn’t like XYZ Cancer Center. Uncle Tommy may have been hard-to-please or he may have had an advanced cancer that didn’t respond to treatment. But if we are going to XYZ Cancer Center, please don’t criticize our decision. We’ve made the best decisions under our unique circumstances.

• I know that you’re glad you’re not traveling 100 miles each way for treatments.
• It’s good that your treatment is local.
• I know that using XYZ Cancer Center is much easier with your children in school.

You’re going to be fine. You can’t possibly know if any particular cancer patient is going to be “fine” or not. We, as cancer patients, are unique. We respond differently to treatment. Some of us have severe allergic reactions to our potentially life-saving medicines. We may not heal quickly after a surgery. We face unforeseeable circumstances that may limit our treatment options. You can’t assure us that we are going to be fine. Instead talk about the factors that can’t change.

• Bob and I are always here for you. Don’t hesitate to call me if you need a ride to radiation. Let me put my cell phone number in your phone.
• I can’t imagine how scary this is. You are always in my prayers.

Really, be honest, how are you doing? People on the outside don’t have a clue what many cancer patients endure. Some of us put up a good front because that’s the best option for us. But the truth is that outsiders don’t need to know or want to know the reality of cancer treatment. They don’t want to hear about our nausea or our mouth sores or the fatigue that sleep doesn’t fix. So here are some better options for conversations.

• I’m not sure how to help. Can I come over and water your hanging baskets for you?
• I’m sure that you might be tired. Could I get your car and have it serviced?
• Do you need anything from the drugstore? I’m going to Walgreen’s tomorrow.

What caused your cancer? This question suggests to many cancer patients that they did something wrong which caused their cancer. While there are common risk factors for many cancers, researchers have yet to determine what causes cancer. If the experts don’t know, then please don’t ask a cancer patient what caused their cancer. These are good alternatives when talking to your friend who has cancer.

• Cancer seems so random. It’s hard to understand why bad things happen to good people.
• I’m so sorry that this has happened to you.

• Bro, I’m going fishing on Saturday. Do you feel up to coming along?

Mow Their Lawn

Don’t eat sugar. I’ve heard that cancer feeds on sugar. If I hear that statement one more time, I’m going to cram my Dixie Crystals bag of sugar down their throat. Researchers don’t yet understand the complex set of circumstances that allow cancer to happen in one person but not another person. Please don’t blame me because I ate something. Our choice of foods while we’re in treatment is often based on what we can tolerate because of chemotherapy or radiation side effects. These are more appropriate conversations to start.

• I’d love to bring you something. What can you eat?
• Is there anything you can’t eat? I’d love to bring you a casserole for the weekend.

The Bottom Line … Always be kind and encouraging.

Since 1 out of every three people will be diagnosed with cancer at some time in their lives, think before you speak. Although the old saying of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” isn’t appropriate when talking to people who have cancer. We’re in the midst of a major health crisis in our lives. If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all. Words can hurt us.

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