What do you say to someone that has cancer?
It sucks to be the one with the cancer but for those dealing with someone that has cancer, many are at loss of what or the right thing to say.
There isn’t a cookie-cutter guide and while we know it’s coming from a good place, truth of the matter is, a lot of things can come out unintentionally offensive. I think I speak for all of us dealing/have dealt with cancer that we know you mean well and that is truly what matters. And while I’ve never personally taken offense by any of these phrases in particular, I just thought it might be helpful to provide a guideline (and a little humor!) to help you (or someone you know) find the right words in a situation like this.
For my fellow cancer fighters/survivors- I hope some of this resonates and makes you laugh (we’ve all been there!) and feel free to comment or message me privately if you’ve got something from your own experience to add!
Say This, Not That
Say this: "How are you feeling?" Not That: "How are you?"
I gaurantee you this is the #1 thing that cancer patients, regardless of what type get asked. While we know what you mean, frankly- it can be a little irritating. How do you think we are?! We have cancer! Also, under no circumstance, should you pry further and ask “No, but how are you really?” This can be taken as intrusive and inappropriate given the context of your relationship and where you are at the moment. “How are you feeling” is more sensitive to what the person is going through and is easier to respond to with specific intel. Note not to overuse this though. It can be exhausting always having to answer that question and sometimes one can’t gauge how much you really want to know.
Say this: "You're not in this alone - I'm here for you" Not That: "Everything happens for a reason"
NEVER EVER say this to someone with cancer. It comes off as you suggesting they did something to cause the cancer. On the flip side, this is definitely ok for the person with the cancer to share, and then you can support them the best you can. There is a variety of ways to say you are there for the person so I just picked the one that was most comforting to me. However, only say you are going to be there if you truly mean it. Otherwise, totally okay to not say anything.
Say this: "Keep me updated and I'm here to help any way I can" Not That: "You'll be fine"
Similar veins to the above. You don’t know the person will be fine and unless you are in in the cancer medical field then telling them that just makes you sound like you are brushing off their cancer diagnosis. If you really want the person to update you and to help them- then the “Say This” remark is much more appropriate and sensitive to the situation.
Say this: "Let me know what day is best to bring you dinner" Not That: "Let me know how I can help"
I completely understand that you really don’t necessarily know what a person may need help with. However, what I’ve found most helpful is when people offer specific things. I’m not currently staying in my own home so friends offered to help me look after my apartment (water plants, get mail, etc). Other things like bringing food, running errands, going with them to appointments, getting their things from the office, help with a project (great for co-workers), babysitting, walking their pets, are all specific things you can offer instead of putting the burden on the person with cancer to ask you for things. Because if they’re anything like me – a stubbornly independent little sass ball who refuses to ask for help (I’m working on it!!!) – they won’t.
Say this: =X Not That: "At least you'll....." (fill in the blank options include but are not limited to: "Get a free boob job", "lose weight", "have an excuse to", "won't have to shave")
Don’t make light of the person’s situation this way. We’re already really sensitive and vulnerable about the situation we are in so don’t make jokes, especially physical ones. In this case, it’s probably better to not say anything at all. How do I materialize the girl with the arms crossed in an “X” emoji on this blog?….Anyone?
Say this: "Let me know if it'd be helpful to connect you" Not That: "So and so had X, Y, Z cancer - they're doing great now"
Unless the person had the same type of cancer (and in that case, still remember that each case is VERY different), this is completely useless and again, digresses from their particular situation. If you are going to go the route of bringing up others you know with cancer, then offer to connect but acknowledge that each cancer case and type is very different.
Say this: "I'm so sorry this happened to you" Not That: "I'm so sorry"
It is pointless to say the latter. What are you sorry for? Did you give me the cancer? Most likely not. Be direct and say “I’m sorry this happened to you”. And when in doubt, it is TOTALLY okay to say “I don’t know what to say” (see below example).
Say this: "I don't know what to say" Not That: "Feel better"
I’ve gotten this a couple of times and to be fair, I think the person on the receiving end of my news was just at loss for words. Now depending on the context, there’s some flexibility. If I told you specifically that I had been wretching for the last four hours as a side effect of treatment, then that might be fitting but it is definitely not appropriate as a response to the news of a cancer diagnosis. I don’t have the flu, I have cancer! Let’s talk when I feel better.
Say this: "You look great! (optional: 'Given what you're going through')" Not That: "But you look so good/great/normal!"
Note I only took out the “But”. Given the context of how cancer patients are portrayed (and also how I really look when I wake up after being sick all night from chemo side effects), I get that this is meant to be a compliment. However, it is very important how you deliver this because otherwise (especially with a “But”) it can again, undermine what the person is going through. For me, if I know I am going to be posting a photo on social media or seeing friends – I do put in a little extra effort to appear human. However, when I am rewarded with the latter above remark with the “But”, I just feel like you are making me defend the effort I put in to see you because I should look like crap.
Say this: "I'm sure you've done your research, but I read about X,Y,Z" Not That: "Have you looked into alternative treatment?"
Yes, I know chemo is scary and believe me, I wanted to avoid it too. But suggesting for someone to avoid modern medicine when you are not a doctor just makes you look crazy to me. Not to mention, I am not a lab rat and I have a lot of shit to deal with and do not have the time to school you on all the research I did do. However, I really appreciate it when you acknowledge the research I must have done already (because I did) and share things you learned so we can open up a conversation.
Bonus Points: “I thought of you because of x, y, and z. No rush/need to respond but I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you!”
I always do my best to respond to everyone on all mediums of communication. However, when I see the acknowledgement that I don’t need to rush or respond. It makes my heart smile. Thank you for knowing that I may just be too tired/lazy at the moment.
Most importantly, regardless of what you say, how you say it – the BIGGEST of THANK YOU (in whatever medium you chose to reach out to me)…for thinking of me. That in itself, to be thought of and reached out to – is what makes me happy.