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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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6. “I read an article in the newspaper that said you should…”
Please don’t play doctor-the patient already has at least one of those. Says Dr. Andersen, “If someone wants information, he or she will ask for it.” The patient is likely already being inundated with information and advice from a medical team, so your two cents about an article from a newspaper, magazine or online publication isn’t necessary.

7. “Your hair looks good like that.”
Anything that calls attention to hair loss or a change in hair color or texture or a wig due to chemotherapy is not recommended, says 50-year-old cancer survivor Sarah Dugo, a sales and marketing executive who lives in Charlotte, NC. “It’s a devastating outward sign of being different and sick,” she says. “People actually came up and rubbed my stubbly head!” Same goes for any comments about weight loss.

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8. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
This phrase is commonly tossed around in hospitals. If you’re religious, this might be something that comforts you. But if the patient isn’t religious, this isn’t going to make him or her feel any better, says Dr. Andersen. In fact, it’s going to make the person feel uncomfortable. Before you say it, ask yourself, “Is this a comment about me or is it a comment that would be helpful to the patient?”

9. “I know how you feel.”
The truth is, you never really do. “If you’ve been through a cancer experience, you may have an understanding, but unless you are going through the patient’s identical experience, you have no idea what that person’s experience is like,” says Christine Clifford, a cancer survivor and the CEO and founder of in Edina, MN. Try to stay focused on the patient’s needs and concerns.

10. “You must have done something to get it.”
Believe it or not, someone once said that to Haralee Weintraub, 60, the CEO of a garment company in Portland, OR, when she had cancer. “I stopped talking to some people over their comments,” she says. Dr. Andersen says she sees this happen a lot with lung-cancer patients-people will mention whether or not they smoked cigarettes, which isn’t appropriate. Don’t even begin to bring up the potential cause of the cancer, because that unfairly assigns blame to the patient.

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