What not to say to someone with cancer: And what helps

Having a loved one with cancer is a life changing experience.  It necessitates coping with the medical demands and perhaps equally challenging, the psychological ones.  One of the most curious issues my wife has had to deal with are the things people say.  Many people do say the right thing, but often she recounts horrible things that leave me wondering “What were they thinking?

Dealing with a diagnosis is quite overwhelming and really quite scarey.  It demands a grieving process and coming to terms with the reality of it all.  The new learning and the scheduling of appointments are substantial demands by themselves; but, dealing with the psychological issues may readily constitute the biggest early challenge.

Fear and uncertainty abound when you first get such a diagnosis.  No matter how hard one tries to internalize the notion that ductal carcinoma is perhaps one of the most successfully remedied forms of cancer, this knowledge is often overpowered by the fear that the word CANCER elicits.  For most of history, a diagnosis of cancer has been a death sentence.  This is hard to get past.

A person in the early stages of diagnosis does not need to hear the horror stories no matter how factual they are.  It only feeds the fear.  What has been most surprising to me is the fact that some people, who have had a personal encounter with cancer, seem to forget the vulnerability one feels early in the experience.  Some seasoned survivors seem to latch onto the novice and assume that they have license to unload their painful personal stories.  I do not know what it is like to be on the other side of this diagnosis, but it is my sincerest hope that all of my loved ones will remember the vulnerability one feels at this stage, and will hereafter provide only calming sensitivity when dealing with the newly diagnosed.

Clearly it is ill advised to recount the number of people one knows who have been defeated by this dreadful disease, but unfortunately, this is the most common offense.  There are other well intentioned things people say like: “You’re so healthy, you’ll beat this!”  Well you know, it’s damn hard to consider yourself healthy, no matter how fit you are, when you HAVE CANCER!

Here are some other important realizations.  Most caring people offer their prayers and thoughts and ask if there is anything they can do.  Many others advise staying positive or offer alternative therapies as if these are the key to success.  All these offers and advice, no matter how well intentioned, do little other than making the speaker feel empowered and supportive.  Although this may be important for you, for the person afflicted, it misses the mark.

Okay, so you have some idea of what not to say, here is my advice on what might be helpful. Bottom line: take the time to really listen.  The newly diagnosed individual needs to be able to process and work through the fear.  It will also be important to spend time with loved ones and to live life as if the malignancy has not engulfed everything and everyone.  One needs to laugh and feel loved.

It is hard to know what to say, but the key to success lies in listening to what’s really going on inside the person.  Skip the self soothing cliches and use real empathy.  Instead of asking if you can do something – do something.  Tell the person what he or she means to you.  Express your love – spend some time with the person doing something fun.  Go to a show, eat dinner out, go for a walk, or stop in for a visit and don’t feel the need to say the right thing.  Instead, ask questions and listen.  Be there, allow for the grief and fear without squelching it.  Focus on his or her feelings, not your own.  Take the risk of not knowing what to say.

To make yourself feel better, do some research and learn about the disease.  You may want to contribute to a worthy cause like Relay for Life and get your solace from that. Don’t expect to garner hero status – do it because it is a good thing to do.  Rally coworkers and friends, wear pink (or other appropriate symbolic color) as a tribute, and take a picture of the group and share it in loving support.  Actions speak louder than words.

It’s not magic – its what you do when some one is grieving or scared.  If you need more concrete guidance, read this or this.  Know that I am saying this not to offend those who have reached out in an errant fashion.  I fear that I may come across as ungrateful or unappreciative, but, if you really want to be helpful – take this constructive feedback and touch someone in a truly meaningful way.



  1. Thank you. My wife is going through this and is pregnant. To say that it has been crazy is an understatement. We find that just getting together with friends and just hanging out is the best way to show our support. The appointments and treatments will come, we will be ready. Until then enjoy the life we have been blessed with.

  2. So sorry to hear of your family’s circumstance. It is hard to go through without the additional complication of pregnancy. I can’t imagine the stress that this additional feature adds.

    I found that time with family was most supportive for us. Sounds like you have good support in the form of friends. Good for you both.

    I also found the guidance from others who had been through my wife’s particular form of cancer to be incredibly valuable. It helped us know what to anticipate and what questions to ask. I hope you have such a resource.

    Best wishes to you and your wife (as well as your unborn child) as you journey through this phase of life. A wise person gave me hope that a day will come when this issue is not the focal point of life. For us, this day has come. I wish the same for you! carpe diem!!

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