What not to say to cancer patients.

My dear dear friend was just informed (over the phone by a nurse – ugh) that her cancer is back. After 8 LONG years of being in remission she has to fight this jerk again.

It is very difficult for me to just sit when something like this happens. However my friend lives far away and there isn’t a lot I can do this minute.

So….. I decided to write a post about things that are unhelpful to say to a cancer patient. (yes, this is just my opinion. Some people may disagree. That’s fine – they are allowed.)

1. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” First of all, this has as the first part of the statement the admission that the thing you are battling could kill you. Seriously? That’s what you want a cancer patient to focus on? Second of all, sometimes when you are going through cancer – going through the surgeries or the treatments or the tests or the waiting – you don’t feel strong. Not at all. You feel weak and vulnerable and in need of some strength from others. Or possibly in need of a day or two in bed – with no responsibilities and some funny movies and some tissues. Maybe some tuna noodle casserole. Some days you don’t want to be expected to be strong. Third of all, for me, this statement makes me want to tell “being strong” to screw off and head back to bed. Just because I’m a rebel.

2. Don’t talk about your uncle’s cousin’s brother who died from the same cancer. Or your friend who had to have chemo and was SO SO sick. Or how everyone in your family has had cancer. And died. Really, just don’t talk about death unless they bring it up. And then just listen for the most part.

3. “I’m sure you will be just fine! You are a fighter!” Thanks for the encouragement. What if I’m not sure I have any fight left? What if I’m not sure I will be fine. It feels like an empty statement. Don’t try to be overly positive. (“Well at least you won’t have to shave your legs when you have chemo.”) What would be more helpful is for someone to say “Wow. I have no idea how you must be feeling (even if you think you do). But please know am here for you to talk to. Or to get out of the house. Whatever you need.” AND THEN be there for them when they call. Listen.

4. “Let me know if I can do anything.” Cause honestly, we don’t have the energy to go around asking for help and telling you what we need. We are exhausted. We can’t begin to tell you what we need. We can’t even make ourselves a list of what we need. The best things you can do to help is this: “I am going to bring by dinner tomorrow night around 6. What sounds good?” “The gang at the office want to make some freezer meals for you. Is there anything your family doesn’t like or can’t eat?” (make sure to include some healthy foods in this – often foods brought over are fatty, carb loaded and heavy. Cancer patients need good nutrition. Add some veggies, a salad, or a nice fruit bowl for dessert.) “I can help babysit on Thursdays and Saturdays at these times. For several weeks. Could I take your kids to the park so you can rest?” or “When you have your surgery, I can watch the kids, also, the next few days so your support team can take care of you instead of feeling frazzled. Here is my number.”

5. When someone tells you that they have cancer, don’t say “My kid has had the flu all week. And you know how I hate vomit.” (yes, that really happened) “I had an ovarian cyst that put me in the hospital once. I totally know how you feel.” I would think this would speak for itself, but apparently it doesn’t. When someone tells you that they have cancer a lot of people don’t know what to say. Try not to fumble for words and just listen. Say “I’m so sorry.” Say “How are you feeling today? Do you want to talk? What is the plan from here forward? Can I go to your doctor’s visits with you?” Etc. Don’t compare, don’t assume you get it.

6. “Wow. That sucks.” Really? Cause I know it sucks. Thanks for the reminder.

7. “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Really? Cause right now I feel like I have a hell of a lot more than I can handle. Not only that, but if I DID believe in the kind of God you are talking about, I wouldn’t believe he/she was sitting somewhere watching me, measuring just exactly how strong I am and giving me JUST the right amount of crap in my life. JUST THE RIGHT amount of hell I can personally handle. Letting me feel just the right amount like I have been abandoned by all of the good in the universe and that I can barely BARELY get through the day laying in bed, much less do anything else. That he knows EXACTLY where my breaking point is, and even though I think it was 2 surgeries and 2 years ago, apparently I was wrong. That image – it doesn’t help.

8. “Everything will be just fine.” Maybe it won’t. And not only that, it’s ok for people to be scared. Say “I know you are scared. I can’t imagine how you feel. I am scared for you. Do you want to talk? Hold hands? Hug? Do you want your Ipod with your “soothing music” playlist? The movie “Footloose?”

9. “My aunt has a natural treatment that CURED her cancer. No, she wasn’t ever actually diagnosed. It’s made out of dirt, dust mites and spring water. It’s only available in Italy – but it totally CURED her.” I am just going to leave it at that.

10. Don’t try to push treatments, different doctors, surgeries, different hospitals, etc. If your friend asks, tell them “this is what I think helped my cancer the most…” “this is the doctor my doctor recommended.” Right now their treatment plan is the only thing they have control over, and they need to feel confident in their decision making. I had a doctor (who I love) send me to a new surgeon. I had another doctor (who I also love) ask me to please go to a different surgeon just for a second opinion. When I said I didn’t want to, she respected that. Turns out I really should have gone to the second doctor. I saw him for the next surgery and he did the one thing that truly turned my course of treatment around. She never said “I told you so” or “You should have listened.”

11. “Oh, I heard that’s the best cancer.” or “Oh, you don’t have to do chemo? You are so lucky.” or “Well, at least it’s not _______ cancer. I know three people who died of that.” There is no best cancer. There is no best cancer treatment. (yes chemo sucks. big. so does radiation, radioactive iodine, surgery, bone marrow transplants, etc.) Everyone’s cancer journey is different, and most of us feel like our road is pretty much sucksville.

12. Don’t ask if they will loose their hair, what their new boobs will feel like, if they will have a lot of scars, etc. Honestly – they don’t know and you don’t need to.

If you DO happen to do any of these things, or worse, just stare at them in horror and avoid them for a week, the harm is not irreparable. But don’t pretend it never happened. Say “I’m sorry I acted like a moron. Can I try again? I’d like to be there for you. I was shocked, but I’d like to show you I can be there.”

The things that are helpful:

ACTION. My mom is my best example of this. If you were having a kid she packed a bag. If you were having surgery, she packed a bag. I ended up in the hospital for a week with sepsis, she packed a bag. I had a cousin who needed surgery and my aunt had something that prevented her from helping. Mom packed a bag. She didn’t ask, she didn’t hesitate. She came to my baby shower one weekend. The very next day after she left I was told I had to go on bedrest. Guess what? She packed a bag, got her work stuff to bring down, and came right back. The next day.

I’m not suggesting you move into your friend’s house or head across the country for someone you haven’t seen in 10 years (unless they ask and you can). But take over dinner. Send a pizza gift certificate. Take a funny movie. Take them out to a movie or dinner if they can go, or take it over to their house if they can’t. Send a card. Make a phone call. Plant some flowers in their planter. Do some laundry. Tell them you know a great housekeeper and you are sending her over on your dime for a couple months. (I wish I could do this for all my cancer friends.) DO something.





Follow their cues.


Edit: I wanted to mention one other thing. My mom was a great nursemaid. She helped me get dressed, prepared sitz baths, helped me learn to nurse, helped me dress wounds, helped me put on a bra when I couldn’t, propped me up in bed when it hurt to lay down, took care of my son and my husband, emptied drains, helped me pull out stitches that had become abscesses (with my dr’s direction). My aunt also came to help me for a week after one surgery and she has always doubted whether or not she helped me. She did. She cleaned my closets, she entertained and exercised my son, she re-potted my plant, she fed us, did laundry, took me to the store, helped me walk down the block, made sure my house was spotless before she left so I didn’t have to worry about that part of things. She made me laugh. She was kind. She was just what I needed. A breath of fresh air and lots of good energy. Everyone can help in their own ways and according to their own personalities. Never doubt that there is something you can do do help someone who needs it. What you can do might be just what they need.


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