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

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.

Shel Harrington

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