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

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

A friend or family member was just 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 this person wants is to be normal and have their life back.  With a little kindness from you along the way, they will!


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2 comments on “What to Say and What Not to Say to Someone with Cancer
  1. You’re 100% wright. My grandson is now in hospics care for DIPG 6 yr old and with our love and positive attitude he has demostraded to be a happy boy despite his own pain.

  2. Thank you for this…this is perfect…this is something I wish some of my family & friends could have received, when I was diagnosed. God bless you.

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