The Worst & Best Things to Say to Someone going through cancer.
It’s hard to know what to say when someone tells you they have cancer.
This is especially true if you’ve never had cancer. But even if you have, finding the right words to say can be tough. That’s because everyone’s situation, condition, and treatment are different. What you experience may not be what someone else does.
With that in mind, there are some things you should say and other things you should never say to someone who has or has had cancer.
As a breast cancer survivor, I’ve received many responses from friends, family, and strangers during my long cancer journey. I have been incredibly blessed by the kind words of many people and utterly astounded by other comments that were unintentionally negative and not helpful.
I wondered if the responses I received were unique. To find out, I contacted a few of my fellow cancer survivor friends and asked them what were the best and worst things they had heard. Taking their answers, as well as my own experiences, I’ve come up with a list of do’s and don’ts to say to someone who has (or had) cancer.
Let’s begin with the DON’Ts.
What You Shouldn’t Say to Someone Who Has Cancer
If it isn’t positive and helpful – Please, DON’T say it! Remember, your words are powerful. Think about what you are going to say before you say it. If what you are going to say is negative, then don’t say it!
As the old saying goes, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”
DON’T say I know how you feel. Because you don’t!
Unless you have walked in the same exact footsteps as that person, you can’t know how he or she feels. I don’t know how my friend, who has had a double mastectomy feels, even though I have had breast cancer. Nor do I know what it’s like to go through multiple myeloma and have a stem cell transplant. Cancer is different for each individual, and there is no way to know how a person feels.
And while we say “I know how you feel” because we care and want to identify with that person. Saying that phrase really isn’t helpful.
DON’T tell them about someone who died from cancer – This response is probably the one I hear the most, and I still don’t know why people would say it. Telling someone about who you know that just died from cancer or about someone you knew 20 years ago who died from the same or even different disease isn’t positive or helpful. Someone going through cancer (or recovering from cancer) doesn’t want or need to hear the word died.
DON’T ask about cancer-specific questions. Don’t start peppering the individual with personal questions. Don’t ask her how or why cancer occurred. Don’t ask the stage of the disease. Don’t ask what procedures she is going through or has gone through unless you know her well enough to ask or unless she shares it with you. If someone wants you to know, she will tell you without you having to ask.
Don’t give unsolicited advice. Unless you are trained in oncology, don’t give medical advice. The number of “medical” solutions I have heard from well-meaning friends, family, and strangers is lengthy -Go on an alkaline diet. Don’t eat sugar – sugar causes cancer! Take massive amounts of Vitamin C or this or that…..the list goes on and on.
There are over 200 types of cancer and just as many variations of the cancers. If there were one cure-all for cancer, then I wouldn’t even be writing this post. Everyone would be miraculously cured, and no one would suffer from this awful disease.
Besides, there is a good chance that the person you are talking to has already heard a dozen times about the “miracle cure” you are touting from a dozen other people. It’s not helpful.
And being helpful is what you genuinely want to do for the person who has just told you he has cancer. Right?
Then instead of saying the Don’ts that I’ve listed above, try saying one of these Do’s instead.
What You Should Say to Someone Who Has Cancer:
DO think before you speak. Again, think about what you are going to say before you say it. Better yet? Pray before you speak. Ask God to give you the right words to say.
DO show sympathy – Do say something like, “I’m sorry you are going through this disease.” or “I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through.” or even, “I don’t know what to say.”
DO say you will pray for them. Let me warn you, though, this can sound cliché. I appreciated all the prayers for me, and I know God heard and answered them. But there were times when I wondered if the person saying this, meant it. Sometimes the phrase seemed less than sincere. Times when it was voiced in that same nonchalant way someone might say “have a nice day.” And when I asked, every friend I talked with before writing this post, said they experienced similar feelings.
Only say you are going to pray for someone if you are really going to pray for them.
If the person is a stranger, I always say, “I would like to keep you in my prayers, would that be okay with you?” If they say yes, then I ask for their first name and promise to keep them in my prayers. I go home, write their name in my prayer journal, and pray for them.
If you are saying this to a friend, do the same but let them know you are praying. Send them a note letting them know you are still thinking of them and that they are in your prayers. Occasionally send them a FB message or give them a call. Your encouraging words may be just what they need to hear that day.
Better yet, if you feel the Holy Spirit prompting you to, ask, “May I pray for you right now?” I love what one of my friends said regarding this, “the best thing that was said and done for me was when a friend stopped in the middle of the grocery store one day, and began praying for my husband and I. Before, I would have felt awkward, but at that point I didn’t care what people thought. I knew the Holy Spirit was in charge and interceding at that moment.”
DO ask if it is okay to hug or touch someone. Be sensitive to a person’s immunity and/or surgeries. And if you even think you might have a cold or infection, avoid contact with that person.
DO let them know you are there for them. Do ask, “How can I help you? What can I do for you?” If the person can’t think of anything now, let her know you are only a phone call away, and to please let you know if she needs something. You can even offer suggestions. (run errands, drive her to an appointment, watch the kids, go grocery shopping or take a meal, etc.)
Remember, words are powerful, but actions are even more so. Even if the person can’t think of anything, you can still do something.
Knowing what to say to someone who has cancer can be difficult. Just remember to stay positive, let the person know you care, speak from your heart, and you will say the right words.
RELATED POST: How to Help Someone During Cancer Treatments. Here is a list of ways you can help and encourage a friend or family member who has cancer.