The top 5 things NOT to say to someone with cancer


I’ve worked with people who have (or have had) cancer for most of my professional life, and I’ve heard repeatedly about certain phrases which, however well-intentioned, can cause pain for a person recovering from cancer.  Of course, this information was gathered anecdotally, and not everyone will agree with this list.  It might even just be a way to open conversations with people you care about, to ask them how you can talk to them in a supportive and interested manner. 

1.     You look great!

I’ve heard people with cancer complain about this one a lot.  They want me to tell you that, even though their hair is growing back, or they don’t look quite so weak, they are still recovering.  They often feel like when people focus on how good they look, that they now feel pressured to be just as they were before. Remember, if the person is still undergoing treatment, or has recently completed treatment, even if they look fine, they may still be struggling.  Be sure to check in about how they are feeling before you start gushing about how their hair is growing back so nicely.

2.     Everything happens for a reason!/Cancer is a gift

This is the next one that I hear the most complaints about from my clients.  The implication here, they feel, is that they somehow deserved the cancer or brought it upon themselves.  Cancer, like so many diseases, strikes many people who never deserved such a painful and challenging disease.  If there’s a reason, other than unfortunate genetics, I haven’t found it. While cancer can bring positive changes to a person’s life, it can also bring a lot of very negative changes too, both during and following treatment.  The person with cancer may ultimately come to a place where they do appreciate the lessons learned,or new knowledge gained, but they will probably first have to deal with all their feelings about the not-so-sunny side of things.

3.     You know, that reminds me of this person I knew (insert really scary story here) who had cancer just like you.

Cancer is scary.  If you’ve been touched by this illness, you already know that.  It may be tempting to share experiences you or a loved one had with someone who is going through something similar.  However, remember that everyone is different, and hearing about worst-case scenarios can create even more fear than was already there.  If you want to empathize, you can simply tell them that, but it’s typically best to keep your worst case scenarios to yourself.

4.     How long are you going to use that excuse of cancer? It’s time to lift yourself up by the bootstraps and get back to living!

Cancer and its treatments are a huge trauma, not just physically, but also psychologically.  During treatment, people often are just focused on getting through this day, this treatment, or this surgery.  When treatment is over, there’s often a big emotional letdown.  Many people who have had cancer say that the emotions are even more intense after treatment has been completed.  Furthermore, the physical side effects, such as crushing fatigue, neuropathy (pain, tingling, and/or numbness at the extremities) and lymphedema (swelling of the arm), can last for a long time.  In my experience people tend to understate, not overstate their symptoms, and they often push through their pain or fatigue when they really should be recovering.  Please try to give them the space to recover.  They’ve been through a lot.

5.     I know just how you feel!

Remember: each person’s experience is unique.  Even people with the same diagnoses have different experiences, so don’t presume that you know how the person feels, even if you’re knowledgeable about the condition.  I’ve worked in the field for many years, and I still cannot know people feel about their condition until they tell me.  Be curious, be respectfully interested, and most people are glad to share their experiences.  You’ll learn something new each time!