What to Say – and What NOT to Say – When They Tell You They Have Cancer

Posted by: Shel Harrington 24 September, 2013 29 Comments

What to Say - and NOT to say - When They Tell You They Have CancerSo many of us don’t know what to do or say when we find out someone we care about has cancer. My ongoing experience with breast cancer has given me an opportunity to find out first hand what was helpful, and what not.

Before I get to my list of what NOT to say to someone who tells you they have cancer, let me put things in context. First, some of the things I suggest you don’t say may be appropriate in a flushed out conversation with someone you love. It’s my opinion they’re not helpful as a first response when someone tells you they have cancer.

Second, if you recognize something you said to me on the list, please know that I was not offended (with the exception of number 7) and I knew it was coming from a good place. I’m just saying it wasn’t helpful.

What NOT to say:

1. How old are you? The lawyer in me mentally responded: “Objection! Lack of relevancy.” The implication is if you’re old enough, it’s okay that you have cancer. It isn’t.

2. How long had it been since you’d had a mammogram? Why don’t you just ask me if I brought this on myself?

3. Can’t you just lop them off and be done with it? Uhm, I’m pretty sure it takes longer to do than to say. No trauma there, right?

4. It’s not a death sentence. Death? I was focused on surgery, radiation and whether or not I’d need chemo. Oh, crap – I could DIE.

5. Call me if there’s anything I can do. You know I’m not calling, right? No matter how sincere the intent of the offer, it’s vague to the point of meaninglessness. (See suggestions for specificity below)

6. Nothing. It’s what many of us say when we can’t find the right words. It’s better to say something to somebody we care about, even if it comes out a little clumsy, than to pretend cancer doesn’t exist or have them think it doesn’t matter to you.

7. How can you keep walking  around with that growing inside of you? This was said in response to me telling someone I was going to take some time to think before making a decision on my course of treatment. Saying nothing would have, indeed, been preferred to this ugly statement. As my mother may have said, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. As I wanted to say . . . never mind. Suffice it to say I’m not as nice as my mother.

cancer breast symbols

Here are some things people said that were well-received. A couple even made me smile.

1. I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I care. Is there a more honest, sincere summary?

2. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. You’re acknowledging their struggle and letting them know it matters to you.

3. I hear you have some big challenges, you’ll be in my prayers. Only say this if you truly will be praying for them.

4. Cancer sucks. An expression I’ve always avoided because of its crassness suddenly seems appropriate. Cancer sucks – it just does.

5. Could you use a second set of ears at your next appointment? People can get emotional when discussing diagnosis and treatment and sometimes don’t hear or fully process all that is said. It can be helpful to have along someone who has more objectivity. It’s a bonus if they are in, or have a good understanding of, the medical profession – they may think of questions the patient didn’t ask.

6. Can I call you in a couple of days and touch base? This acknowledges it is an ongoing situation, lets them know you’ll be there for them, and displays sensitivity with regard to the unknown of whether or not they want to talk about it.

7. Mommy will kiss it and make it all better. “Mommy” is 87 and lives in Florida. I’m 54 and live in Oklahoma. It not only made me smile, it left me with an overwhelming desire to jump on a plane. Never underestimate the healing power of a mother’s love.

8. Can I drop off some dinner – I’ll just leave it on the porch. Dear friends wanted to do something for me the day of my first surgery and offered to bring dinner. They knew I probably wouldn’t feel like interacting with anybody that day, so they made sure I knew they didn’t intend to stay and visit. I told them I appreciated the offer, but no thank you. They brought it anyway – complete with simple freeze/thaw/heat directions to be had at our convenience. It was delicious.

9. Can I (put SPECIFIC offer here)? Telling someone to call you “if they need anything” puts them in the position of asking for a favor. Be specific in your offer to help. Here are suggestions that may be helpful over the course of illness and treatment:

  • Babysit or offer to get the children out of the house for a while
  • Pick up or take children to school or extracurricular activities
  • Pinch-hit for them for duties at their children’s school or other obligations
  • Transport them for treatments
  • Pick-up requested library books
  • Sit with them during chemotherapy treatments
  • Make calls or write notes on their behalf to people/groups (i.e. book club, civic organizations) that need to be aware of the situation
  • Run specific errands for them (cleaner’s, groceries, pet needs, etc.)
  • Clean their house

In addition, one can’t get too many cards and positive notes (email and Facebook count) when they are dealing with challenging circumstances. You don’t have to say something profound. A simple statement like: “I want you to know you’re in my thoughts and prayers” will be well-received. Not the praying type? How about: “I wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you and wishing you the best.” It truly is the thought that counts – and following up on that thought.

If you have suggestions for other things to say –  or NOT to say – upon hearing a loved one has cancer, please share it in the comment section below.

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29 Comments

  • Julie Rivers

    Shel, Thank you SO MUCH for sharing what/what not to say/do. I mean I don’t find any of this in any sort of etiquette book (not that I have them on the shelf for reference anyway!) so maybe there’s a whole section on cancer, divorce etc. 🙂 And you ARE in my prayers!

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks, Julie – your prayers have made a difference for me. I had to chuckle at the idea of you scoping out etiquette books – I see you more authoring them (proper etiquette in divorce court, proper etiquette in mediation, etc) then reading them!

  • This is excellent commentary. So many of us are lost when people we care about are dealing with major illnesses. I’ll be bookmarking this for future reference!

  • Leslie Taylor

    God bless you. Shel, I went through cancer treatment with my mom for her melanoma and heard countless thoughtless remarks from people who just didn’t know what to say. I am guilty of saying “I’m sorry, it sucks,” because it does. I pray for you, and I am sorry you’ve had to face this. I am glad you are still full of spunk and spitfire! 🙂

    • Shel Harrington

      I remember that time period for you Leslie. If memory serves, you were also very pregnant on top of dealing with law finals. You were an inspiration with your positive attitude and your wicked humor in spite of your great loss. And no apologies necessary for calling it like you see it! Thank you for your prayers, my friend.

  • Gina Kishur

    Quite helpful. I’d love to see you publish a small book. Most of us don’t have a clue, and your words would be very well received. I am thinking of you often, and praying for a full and speedy recovery.

  • Brenda Reardon

    Excellent writing, Shel. You are one of my heroes…overcoming and conquering the sucky thing and continuing to help others with your words of wisdom!

  • Great information Shel. I went through lung cancer with my mother and know how tough it can be – at least from my side. Of course her’s was a different perspective.

    • Shel Harrington

      Both sides are so tough, Peggy. I know my husband had his own difficult path – it’s hard to see someone you love in a lousy place and know there’s only so much you can do when ‘fixing it’ isn’t an option. I’m sorry you had to experience that – lung cancer can be brutal.

  • This is great advice, Shel. “Mommy will kiss it and make it all better.” Our mother’s must be related..that’s exactly what my mom would say. You and my coworker, who just had a double mastectomy, are in my daily prayers.

    • Shel Harrington

      We are both blessed to have such silly, loving mothers!I wish mine was closer. I really saw another dimension of my parents through this – as well as a lot of other people. And most of it was very, very good. Thank you for your prayers, Jill. I’ll add your coworker to my prayer list, too – the path she opted for has its own set of challenges.

      • We are blessed. I feel especially blessed as my parents live 20 minutes from me. You’re right about seeing another side of your parents when their child is fighting a battle. I have Crohn’s Disease and whenever I have a flare-up, my dad always tells me he wished it was him instead of me. Thank you for adding my coworker to your prayers…this is her second go around…it does suck! Like you, she always has a smile on her face.

  • E-mail, Facebook, and greeting cards are wonderful ways to express support… but there’s no substitute for a handwritten, snail-mailed note. I still cherish the ones I received after my miscarriage 15 years ago. (There weren’t many.)

    • Shel Harrington

      I’m sorry you didn’t have more support during such a tough, life altering event, Maria. I couldn’t agree with you more about hand-written notes – the very time it takes to write and mail it says so much. Receiving it in a brightly colored envelope is a bonus!

  • Shel you are creating a safe place for people to advocate and dialogue about difficult things. This is a wonderful post!

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks, Lisa. I keep thinking of things I forgot on the list – like: “I know how you feel because (insert unrelated incident about the speaker). Ah, hindsight – isn’t it annoying?

  • Shel, I had no idea you were dealing with cancer. I’m so sorry. However, I am grateful you’re willing to share a list of dos and don’ts.

    I tend to babble when I don’t know what to say, so I pretty much cover the “to say” list, the “don’t say it” list, and most everything in between. Someone please kick me to make me stop!

    I’m keeping this post in mind as I continue to try to be supportive of friends who have cancer and ones who have lost loved ones as I think this list pertains to them also. Thank you for your guidance.

    Saying a prayer for you now.

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks for the prayer, Kim! I agree that the list goes beyond those with cancer – but there’s more to add for a lost loved one – like the ever-stupid ‘time heals all wounds’ and ‘he’s in a better place now’

      With regard to the cancer, my original intent was to keep it as private as possible so that it would not overlap into my professional world. And then a (in my opinion) greedy doctor ticked me off – I felt it necessary to share info that almost didn’t get shared with me. If you get a chance check it out – here’s the link: http://shelharrington.com/why-im-coming-out-of-the-cancer-closet/

  • This is outstanding, Shel. It’s a powerful combination, listing the things NOT to say, then following up with responses that YES, were helpful and supportive.
    I hope you have some of your blog posts printed in newsletters or handouts to reach a wide audience.

  • Shoshana Wasserman

    I really enjoyed reading your post! I am sure there are many who would really appreciate this and I hope to be able to share with those my circle of friends and family. Thank you

    • Shel Harrington

      I’m so glad you stopped by, Shoshana – I know you can relate! I’d love to hear any additions you might have for the list.

  • I actually was exploring for recommendations for my own website and stumbled upon your
    own posting, “What to Say – and What NOT to Say – When They Tell You They Have Cancer | Shel Harrington”, do you care in
    case I personally apply a number of your tips? Many thanks -Ramonita

    • Shel Harrington

      I’m glad to get the info out there, Ramonita! I would very much appreciate it if you gave me credit for any particulars and included my blog site. Please let me know your website address – sounds like we have some interests in common.