What to Say – and What NOT to Say – When They Tell You They Have Cancer

What to Say and What NOT to Say When They Tell You They Have CancerSo many of us don’t know what to do or say when we find out someone we care about has cancer. My recent experience with breast cancer has given me an opportunity to find out first hand what was helpful, and what not.

Before I get to my list of what NOT to say to someone who tells you they have cancer, let me put things in context. First, some of the things I suggest you don’t say may be appropriate in a flushed out conversation with someone you love. It’s my opinion they’re not helpful as a first response when someone tells you they have cancer.

Second, if you recognize something you said to me on the list, please know that I was not offended (with the exception of number 7) and I knew it was coming from a good place. I’m just saying it wasn’t helpful.

What NOT to say:

1. How old are you? The lawyer in me mentally responded: “Objection! Lack of relevancy.” The implication is if you’re old enough, it’s okay that you have cancer. It isn’t.

2. How long had it been since you’d had a mammogram? Why don’t you just ask me if I brought this on myself?

3. Can’t you just lop them off and be done with it? Um, I’m pretty sure it takes longer to do than to say. No trauma there, right?

4. It’s not a death sentence. Death?!? I was focused on surgery, radiation and whether or not I’d need chemo. Oh, crap – I could DIE.

5. Call me if there’s anything I can do. You know I’m not calling, right? No matter how sincere the intent of the offer, it’s vague to the point of meaninglessness. (See suggestions for specificity below)

6. Nothing. It’s what many of us say when we can’t find the right words. It’s better to say something to somebody we care about, even if it comes out a little clumsy, than to pretend cancer doesn’t exist or have them think it doesn’t matter to you.

7. How can you keep walking around with that growing inside of you? This was said in response to me telling someone I was going to take some time to think before making a decision on my course of treatment. Saying nothing would have, indeed, been preferred to this ugly statement. As my mother may have said, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. As I wanted to say . . . never mind. Suffice it to say I’m not as nice as my mother.

What to Say and What NOT to Say When They Tell You They Have Cancer

Here are some things people said that were well-received. A couple even made me smile.

1. I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I care. Is there a more honest, sincere summary?

2. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. You’re acknowledging their struggle and letting them know it matters to you

3. I hear you have some big challenges, you’ll be in my prayers. Only say this if you truly will be praying for them.

4. Cancer sucks. An expression I’ve always avoided because of its crassness suddenly seems appropriate. Cancer sucks – it just does.

5. Could you use a second set of ears at your next appointment? People can get emotional when discussing diagnosis and treatment and sometimes don’t hear or fully process all that is said. It can be helpful to have along someone who has more objectivity. It’s a bonus if they are in, or have a good understanding of, the medical profession – they may think of questions the patient didn’t ask.

6. Can I call you in a couple of days and touch base? This acknowledges it is an ongoing situation, lets them know you’ll be there for them, and displays sensitivity with regard to the unknown of whether or not they want to talk about it.

7. Mommy will kiss it and make it all better. “Mommy” was 87 and lives in Florida. I was 54, living in Oklahoma. It not only made me smile, it left me with an overwhelming desire to jump on a plane. Never underestimate the healing power of a mother’s love.

8. Can I drop off some dinner – I’ll just leave it on the porch. Dear friends wanted to do something for me the day of my first surgery and offered to bring dinner. They knew I probably wouldn’t feel like interacting with anybody that day, so they made sure I knew they didn’t intend to stay and visit. I told them I appreciated the offer, but no thank you. They brought it anyway – complete with simple freeze/thaw/heat directions to be had at our convenience. It was delicious.

9. Can I (put SPECIFIC offer here)? Telling someone to call you ‘if they need anything’ puts them in the position of asking for a favor. Be specific in your offer to help. Here are suggestions that may be helpful over the course of illness and treatment:

• Babysit or offer to get the children out of the house for a while

• Pick up or take children to school or extracurricular activities

• Pinch-hit for them for duties at their children’s school or other obligations

• Transport them for treatments

• Pick-up requested library books

• Sit with them during chemotherapy treatments

• Make calls or write notes on their behalf to people/groups (i.e. book club, civic organizations) that need to be aware of the situation

• Run specific errands for them (cleaner’s, groceries, pet needs, etc.)

• Clean their house

In addition, one can’t get too many cards and positive notes (email and Facebook count) when they are dealing with challenging circumstances. You don’t have to say something profound. A simple statement like: “I want you to know you’re in my thoughts and prayers” will be well-received. Not the praying type? How about: “I wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you and wishing you the best.” It truly is the thought that counts – and following up on that thought.

If you have suggestions for other things to say – or NOT to say – upon hearing a loved one has cancer, please share it in the comment section below.

38 comments

  1. All of your suggestions were adequate, however I do have a question of my own to ask here. Why is there a list of correct or incorrect. Having had cancer three times in my 71 years the truth is it seemed to me that almost all of my “family” except for most of my siblings didn’t call me or for that matter speak about it. Why does the word cancer throw fear into so many people. If I said I had diabetes, or heart trouble, or clogged arteries the reaction is totally different. People then tend to have all kinds of advice to lend you. Cancer is a disease and you really don’t know if it is going to do you in until the tests are taken. If there is surgery involved, I agree it is nice to have some help with chores, or baby sitting or meals. I noticed that people tend to back away and I believe the reason is fear. Don’t let the word Cancer frighten you, it’s not contagious, now days it does not have to be a death sentence and the medical society has many avenues of treatment. My first bout with cancer was in 1983, colon and stomach, second was in 2007 thyroid, and then in 2012 my upper lobe of my right lung. Surgery done on all three. I think a simple “I am sorry to hear that, if there is anything I can do please let me know. We will keep you in our prayers.” would do. If you are called to help out with something then by all means do it.

    1. Wow, Patricia – you have overcome so much! And you have seen first-hand the evolution of options available for treatment. Thank you for your example of positivity and being realistic. I love your comment about it not being contagious – that is often how people seem to respond!

      You’re so right about the other ailments you mentioned – I think when people hear words like “diabetes” and “clogged arteries” they immediately think about treatments versus hearing the word “cancer” and immediately thinking about death. Even though many sources cite heart disease as taking more lives. It’s so unfortunate that some let their fear of the disease or of not knowing the “right” thing to say keep them from saying anything. Unless it’s totally insensitive, even the clumsiest well-wishes beat ignoring the issue.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. I hope that 2014 has been a healthy year for you and that you are currently doing well. -El

  2. Read this with interest, as I have had three separate bouts with the big C. The first one made me ponder and get some things done, the second was radiation (43 days), was kind of a walk in the park. The last and most recent cancer of the lung has slowed me down. Have been told by friends that will be the end as the only thing left would be cancer be of the brain and it is a established fact cancer only attacks body parts that are used. This was told to me by a long time friend but he added you have to hang around because when you are gone HE will be the ugliest man alive. Always remember when the going gets tough, get going.

    1. Dean, you crack me up! If your friend thinks you have him beat in the ugly department, he must be better looking than he realizes! You’re “get going” advice is good stuff, Dean – and I can attest to the fact that you practice what you preach! -El

    1. That’s a perfect barometer, Kath. We should trade out the first question that pops in our head – What should I say? for your test – What would I want to hear? or What could I use help with? It seems so simple, but simple is what usually works best! -El

  3. Great advice always comes directly from one’s own experience and this is a comprehensive list!

    I echo – cancer sucks! As does all ‘life threatening’ illnesses. Life threatening illnesses are those ones that people die from. Many folks are scared of them. It’s easier to ignore things that scare you – or exhort the diagnosed person to get well, get over it, get on with it – then I won’t have to look at it any more……..

    I had several bouts with a ‘life threatening’ illness in the past – for me it’s heart, not cancer – and the different ways folk handled or didn’t handle it was most interesting to observe. I have one friend who on a daily basis came and put me in her car, drove me to the sea and toddled me up and down the pier for my daily intake of ozone and revival. She did it for weeks. She did it because she knows I love the sea and she did it to ensure I had access to her if I needed to talk. Her quiet presence, gentle humour and persistence helped save my life. Never under-estimate the power of true friendship!

    1. Wow, Pauline, what a blessing to have a friend like that in your life! I agree with you about how interesting it is to observe the reactions – or lack thereof – of friends, acquaintances and family members. Some of the love shown me by particular friends and family members surpassed anything I knew existed in them and how they viewed me. I feel I was gifted with that insight that will stay with me long past the final follow-up – and but for one of the lowest periods in my life I would not have received that gift. It’s such a fascinating dynamic to me. -El

    1. Asking how old someone is as soon as we hear about death or illness seems universal. I get that the younger they are the more tragic the event seems. I was sensitized to how insensitive it is when, years ago, my father had a heart attack. My pastor (of all people!) asked how old he was and when I said 75, he actually said: “Oh – that’s OK then.” I was shocked. And hurt. I made a mental note to never ask that question again when someone shared such information. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to stifle the natural inclination to ask and how appreciative I am when the speaker offers the info. What’s up with that, anyway??

  4. What great suggestions! Gee, people can say the dumbest things sometimes. Is it so hard to get on the other side of the words flying out of one’s mouth? I particularly love these suggestions of how to help, though. Very practical.

    1. Unfortunately, opportunities abound to test-drive them these days! My mother is a retired RN whose final working years were in geriatrics and, later, hospice care. What an example she set! I had the privilege of seeing first-hand what a difference an individual could make in the life – and even end-life – of others when they didn’t avoid the issues and kept treating the person as a person of worth instead of a disease in progress. -El

  5. Thoughtful and interesting post – and one that will affect us all from one perspective or the other unfortunately – but helpful ideas there for those who struggle with saying the right thing.

    1. You’re right, Jenny – it’s a dilemma we’re all going be on one side or the other at some time. Many, unfortunately will get a glimpse from both sides. As we age we have so much more interaction with friends and loved ones in crisis that responding in a genuine helpful way gets easier. I hate that I’ve had so much opportunity to hone that skill. -El

  6. So very wise and true this Shel. I’m so glad you clarified that ‘well meaning’ offer of support as in ‘call me if you need anything’ line. There are so many vague and empty things people say which they have no intention of following through on. But your second list really does restore my faith in humanity. How wonderful of your friends to cook a meal for you but understand that you didn’t want to ‘hang out’. It’s that kind of thing that means the world 🙂

    1. I agree with you, Sherri, about the gift of friends who ‘get it.’ I also agree with you about the vague and empty offers. It’s like asking someone how they are when you really mean “Hello.” Every once in a while (because I can be really ugly!) I was tempted to answer to the first (knowing darn well they wanted to hear “Fine”) with a flip “Got cancer – thanks for asking.” But no matter how tempted I was to amuse myself with a potentially shocked expression, I chose the mature (read: boring) route and responded with something positive that would allow them to to feel they had done their duty and could now move on. (Ooooh – it looks like a bit of the ugly remains behind here!)

      Most of the journey was quite positive – filled with blessings and lessons. I realize that it is easier to take that embrace that view when one has a positive outcome. I like to think I would have maintained that attitude regardless, but I truly hope I am never put to the test where I find out!

  7. Reblogged on jennquick.wordpress.com
    It is hard to know what to say, I had miscarriages years ago and the responses were similar. Some were just right and others were just soooo wrong.

    1. Can’t imagine having to deal with that, Jenny. But I can imagine some of the well-meaning silliness that was uttered. As if any future event, no matter how wonderful, could ever erase such loss. I think we could change out the word ‘cancer’ in that post for just about all life-altering or life-threatening events. Thanks for reblogging the post. If just one person reads it and says to someone in crisis something like: “Can I just sit with you?” instead of the “Call me if I can help” that they may have otherwise tossed out, we have done our job!

      I’m so glad you found us, Jenny – hope to see you often! -El

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