What to say and what not to say to someone with cancer

What to Say and What Not to Say to Someone Newly Diagnosed with Cancer

A friend or family member was newly diagnosed with cancer.  What do you do?  What do you say?  This is probably a time when you’re at a real loss for words. There’s always the standard, “You’ll be OK, I know it!”  But do you?  This person’s whole life has just gone down the drain, or so it seems.  Unless you yourself have heard the words “you have cancer,” you have absolutely no clue what they’re feeling.  They want more than anything for things to be OK, but no matter how many times you say it, they probably won’t believe it anyway.  So what DO you say?

Cancer Etiquette for Friends and Family

Speaking from my own experience, I wanted people who had traveled the same road I was about to travel to tell me it would be OK. I would believe them!  If you’re not one of them, then find one.  If you can’t find one, then find positive (and I repeat positive) stories to share.  I thrived on those!  Sometimes a simple “I’m sorry you have to go through this” was all that was needed.  “What can I do” was always appreciated.  And please check in often, either in person or with cards in the mail.  Nothing hurt more than to hear from dozens of people in the beginning and then, BAM… nothing.  I know some people just simply didn’t know what to say or do.  It was hard for me to excuse this.  Doing nothing, saying nothing, but just being there would have helped me get through the tough times. A simple text asking how I managed my last chemo treatment would have showed me they were thinking of me.

If You Can’t Say Something Positive, Don’t Say Anything at All

Of course, there’s always going to be the well-meaning people who, for some reason, feel the need to share negative stories.  I never could understand why someone just had to tell me how their great Aunt Edna died of the same thing I had. Or how their third cousin on their mom’s side got a terrible infection from the same surgery I was about to have.  Geez people, stop and think about what you’re saying and who you’re saying it to.  My friend, Chris finally got to the point where she would stop someone mid-sentence and ask, “What part of this story is supposed to make me feel better?”  When you’re going through cancer you’ve got more important things to worry about than hurting someone’s feelings.  If you know someone who had a bad experience with a treatment, keep it to yourself.  No doom and gloom stories please!

The Importance of Staying in Touch

I have a close family member who never once contacted me during my entire ordeal although I would occasionally see her at family gatherings.  She always told me that my mother-in-law kept her up to date on how I was doing.  To me that was totally unacceptable.  Pick up the phone and call your friend or family member.  Visit often if you can.  E-mail, text, whatever!  You don’t have to stalk them but let them know you’re there and you care.  I’d rather pick up the phone and hear a friend say, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you” than to not hear from them at all! When I was bald, with little to no eyebrows, my self-esteem was at an all-time low.  Any compliment was highly appreciated, whether it was the pretty scarf I was wearing or how well someone thought I was doing.  I always hated when people told me how tired I looked.  Really… no kidding!  I’m facing my mortality here, having just a tiny problem sleeping!

Humor is Healing

I always loved it when friends shared their laughter with me.  My sense of humor was and still is a big part of my life.  They knew this and did what they could to get me to smile.  A bunch of balloons decorated like bald heads was a big hit!  A dinner complete with Mickey Mouse plates and matching napkins was just the thing I needed!

Simple Rules to Remember

  • Show you care and prove it
  • Share positivity whenever you can
  • Stay in touch throughout the journey
  • Don’t say stupid things

As the days and weeks go by, your friend or family member will gain much needed positive momentum.  They will have felt your love and concern, and they will have seen that you care.  They realize what they’re dealing with and a little of the shock has worn off.  Eventually when you tell them everything will be OK, they will believe it and they’ll know it will!

Post-Treatment Do’s and Don’ts

At the end of treatment, shy away from asking if everything is done and they are CURED!  The term ‘cure’ is used very sparingly in the cancer world.  Just congratulate them for getting through a very rough time!  And don’t expect them to be the same person as they were pre-cancer.  They’ve had a life altering event and have had to fight for their life.  Their body has been assaulted and it will take time to heal.  Patience and understanding will go a long way.  And above all always show positivity!  All a newly diagnosed person wants is to be normal and have their life back.  With a little kindness from you along the way, they will!

12 thoughts on “What to Say and What Not to Say to Someone Newly Diagnosed with Cancer”

  1. Never Say (my pet peeve)

    “I know just how you feel because my aunt had that same cancer and she went through such a hard time in so much pain.”

    No you don’t know just how she feels. Each situation is unique in itself and this conversation is not about your aunt it is about your friend who has just been diagnosed.

    1. The day of my surgery, I had a “so called” friend send me information on ashes from art… cremation ashes. I was very confused and it hurt my feelings. Why would she do such a thing when I’ve always been supportive of her in everything.

  2. When I told a person that I have known nearly all my life(I am 62) that I had a brain tumor and was going in for surgery her comment was ” oh tumors are cancer, cancer is a beast”…next comment “I hope you have a slow recovery” ” having something invasive in your head, I hope you don’t have a lot of pain” ..””you are in for a struggle”
    Oh, sorry you might not see Christmas” “as we age, we heal slower”
    The sad thing is, not once did this person ask how I was doing. I confronted her about her comments, asking way the negativity and she said she wasn’t being negative. I assured her she was but refused to see it. I even went so far as to say it hurt me deeply, which didn’t matter to her. “Its her right to say what she wants”was what she told me.

    1. Hey, Diane – I’m sorry to hear that your longtime ‘friend’ turned out to be such a tone-deaf buffoon. As you know, her comments are totally unacceptable and self-serving (her ego that she is right and knows all).

      Your comment was a few months back, but I wanted to say that I hope your surgery was a success and that you’re recovering comfortably. How are you feeling?

      I know I don’t know you, but I am sending love, light, and peace across the universe to you.

      You can always email me if you ever want someone to talk to.

  3. I want to thank you for this page. I needed to make the call and had a feeling of how I might phrase it. Reading this verified my feeling and I am so happy I found this page. It is my sister’s “significant other”, I have known him since they were in high school and I could not be silent. Thank you again. I will refer to this page in the coming months.

  4. I’m so happy I came across this sight as I was just thinking what I can tell my mother-in-law that is having surgery for he skin cancer in the head for the second time to see how bad it is and then will be going to the cancer doctor that will give the results and treatment if possible. It’s so hard being that I’m not her daughter but do want her to know that I have faith it will be fine and that I’m available for what ever she needs to make thing easier for her if she needs me. I felt reassured that it would be okay to text her saying this. Thanks once again!

  5. Joan S., Massachusetts

    Dear Santa,

    I am asking you to bring some understanding and enlightenment to people I encounter.

    I have been getting cancer treatments for a little over a year and I am finding certain comments hurtful and dismissive.  When asked how I am doing I usually answer ‘fine, but tired’.  I am met with responses of “why do you think you are so tired?” and other responses of “you’ll be fine”, “just stay positive” and “you know they are putting poison in you”.  I believe these people mean well and don’t know what to say, but it leaves me feeling discounted.  I am no drama queen but feel these comments are insensitive and not supportive.

    A more appropriate, supportive response to someone going through a challenging medical time would be “I hope the treatment is successful, wishing you the best outcome” or “I am sure you must get tired, I bet those naps help.”

    Don’t barrage someone with texts and phone calls after an appointment, you don’t know how fatiguing or what happened in that appointment.  And please don’t ask if you can “share” the medical information with others.  It feels like a gossip channel not a support system.

    Anyway I hope this letter can be used to enlighten the support system of anyone going through a medical crisis.

    1. Cheri Marderosisn

      I always wait for my friend to call me after a appt. it takes awhile cause because she does get a lot of calls n text and she doesn’t want to be saying the same thing over n over. She’s said I’m tired and people won’t let up so she herself can rest or just have time to think!

  6. Thank you all for your comments and advice,very helpful. My sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 3 years ago and starting 2020 with chemo again! She also had a cardiac cath done and stent placed in Dec and suppose to start cardiac rehab.Great combo right? LOL.Just trying to support her and praying alot.

  7. Cheri Marderosisn

    I have a friend diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Dr said no chemo as it has spread so quickly. I’ve been positive with her and we laugh n talk daily. I just wish there more I can say to her to her.

  8. Well– my very good friend just got a bad diagnosis… thanks for the feedback here. I think every situation is different and I trust that I’ll say the right things… and even if I get it wrong- it’s only because I got it wrong and it wasn’t intentional… Be human, be honest, listen, show up in ways that are helpful– be honest and imperfect… Just be there… in a way that is right for you… If they don’t want you there — you will know and you can help in other ways… healthy food and kind gestures, prayer. Listen more. Talk less… Be gentle with yourself and more gentle with them.

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