Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who Has Cancer
By Jane Bianchi
It’s important to choose your words carefully when speaking to a cancer patient. Though you probably mean well, it’s all too easy to accidentally insult someone. According to Barbara L. Andersen, PhD, a researcher and professor of psychology, two of the best things to say are easy: “I’m sorry you’re ill” and “I’m thinking of you.” In fact, sometimes gestures speak louder than words. For instance, sending flowers or watching TV with your friend can offer comfort. Every cancer patient has a different opinion and experience, of course, and many know that you do mean well. But to avoid putting your foot in your mouth, don’t utter these next 10 phrases. Photo by Getty Images
1. “You are strong and will get through this.”
Jacki Donaldson, a 44-year-old cancer survivor and writer/editor in Gainesville, FL, says this sends the message that if you need to be tough to survive. And that’s not necessarily true. “I personally like when someone meets me where I am and says, ‘How unfair. You must be so mad.’ These words validate my feelings and make me feel understood. Misery does love company. Misery does not always love the positive spin on tragic life events,” she says.
2. “How are you feeling?”
This might surprise you, since you may feel that this sort of phrase shows that you care. But here’s the problem with it: “So many people ask patients that. It gets really old and annoying after a while,” says Dr. Andersen. Also, keep in mind that the person probably doesn’t feel so great, and asking this question only reminds him or her of that.
3. “Can I do anything to help you?”
It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s too broad and, as a result, the patient will likely say no. He or she is probably too overwhelmed to think of a task, so suggest doing something specific for the person instead, suggests Teresa Rhyne, a 51-year-old lawyer and cancer survivor in Riverside, CA. Say, for example, “I’d like to bring you dinner. Would Tuesday or Wednesday night be better?” If you can’t bring the person dinner, maybe you could buy groceries, take care of his or her kids one afternoon or give the person a ride to treatment. If there’s a spouse or friend in charge of logistics, ask that person what you can do.
4. “How serious is the cancer?”
Don’t ask detailed questions about the diagnosis or treatment plan. Other no-no’s include: “How many chemo sessions do you have?” and “Are you getting radiation?” Your main concern should be supporting the patient, says Dr. Andersen. These types of questions may stress out the patient, since she may not know all the answers. Remember that some patients are more private than others, so don’t pry-only discuss these matters if the patient brings them up.
5. “My grandmother/mom/sister/aunt/friend had cancer…”
The patient’s situation may remind you of someone else, but telling a story about a family member or friend who has or had cancer is simply irrelevant-and it’s especially a bad idea if it’s a fatal story. Lynne Feldman, 68, a lawyer and cancer survivor in Saddle River, NJ, says, “Telling me about Cousin Syd’s current third round of chemo for prostate cancer didn’t help me to process my diagnosis or make decisions about my own cancer treatment.”