Coping With Emotions

What Not to Say to Someone With Cancer

There is so much to talk about, so don't let a few precautions keep you from engaging in conversations with a loved one who has cancer. There are just a few things that are considered what not to say to someone with cancer you may want to avoid.

When someone you care about has cancer, it’s important to understand that this is a challenging and emotional time, and some comments that seem harmless can be hurtful. You, of course, mean well, but some comments come off as offensive or just annoying. Read on to find out what not to say to someone with cancer.

“You don’t understand how difficult your diagnosis is for me.”

If someone you love has cancer, it’s a terrible situation, and you probably need to talk to someone about that. But be careful about talking to the person with cancer about how her disease is complicating your life. This wonderful essay from the LA Times explains how you should provide comfort to those who are closer to the traumatic situation, and if you need to complain, find someone who has more distance from it.

“Did you know that if you _____, cancer can’t survive in your body?”

The internet, along with well-meaning friends and strangers, are full of magical cures for cancer. But treatment plans are based on the specific pathology of the cancer, other health issues the patient might have and a number of other considerations. It’s easy to criticize how someone else treats his health issue, but his decisions need to be respected. Unless he asks you for your opinion, stay out of it.

“You have such a great attitude.”

When someone dies from cancer, it doesn’t mean she didn’t fight hard enough or didn’t have the right attitude. Don’t tell her about your great aunt who died from this disease and how awful it was. This isn’t the time for that conversation, as she is already worried. Additionally, don’t ask her if she’s going to die or how much time she has. If she offers this information, that’s her choice.

“I’d be happy to help.”

This might seem like the perfect thing to say, but you’d be surprised how often it’s a hollow offer. Asking for help is one of the hardest things a cancer patient has to learn to do. Imagine working up the nerve to ask for the thing that was offered and getting a lame excuse in response. If you want to help, ask if he has a website where you can sign up to provide meals or transportation.

“It’s probably because you’re a smoker.”

Whether it’s eating too much soy, not enough soy, smoking or any number of other ways to blame them for their cancer, don’t. It’s tempting, as it’s part of the way people rationalize this disease. You think people with cancer smoke and you don’t, so you’re safe — but it doesn’t work like that, and it just makes cancer patients feel worse.

“Look on the bright side.”

You’re trying to be encouraging, but telling someone how to feel about her situation can be both condescending and dismissive. People don’t want to hear that their pain is part of “God’s plan.” Often, platitudes like that are more comforting to the speaker than the person to whom they’re directed.

When talking to your loved ones, you always want to consider what not to say to someone with cancer, but that may leave you at a loss. Giving people a segue to talk about the things they love most, like family, favorite movies and pets, can be a big relief. Many have a newsletter, social media feed or blog you can subscribe to. Reading their updates will relieve the stress of retelling the same story. After cancer has been addressed, your options are vast. They’re still the same people, they’ll still enjoy talking with you and there are still many ways you can help them feel better.

UVA Cancer Center offers counseling and chaplains who talk to caregivers and loved ones about their cancer experience and feelings.

Learn More
Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley