What to not say to a cancer patient?
Learning that a friend or family member has cancer can be a devastating experience. It’s normal to feel a range of emotions, from sadness to fear, anger, and even guilt. Knowing what to say to them can be difficult and stressful, especially when you don’t want to say the wrong thing.
As someone who has been on the receiving end of well-intentioned but hurtful comments, I know how important it is to be mindful of the words we use. It can be incredibly hurtful and disheartening to hear comments that are dismissive or invalidating of the very real fears and concerns that come with this illness.
When someone says, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” it can feel like they are ignoring the emotional turmoil that cancer patients experience every day. We need validation and support for the complex emotions that come with facing mortality and the uncertainty of what the future holds.
Similarly, when people say, “I know how you feel,” it can feel like they are trying to minimize our unique and personal experience. The truth is, every person’s cancer journey is different and we need to be seen and heard for our individual experiences.
And please, don’t compare our cancer to others. Every type of cancer is difficult and unique. When we hear comments like, “At least it’s not as bad as x type of cancer,” it can feel like our struggles are being minimized.
Cancer help for patients can be provided is many ways including being mindful of what and how we say things. To make it a little easier, we put together a few suggestions of things to avoid saying.
What to avoid saying to cancer patients?
- I know how it feels
Even if you’ve had cancer yourself or know someone who has, everyone’s experience with cancer is different. It’s better to acknowledge that you can’t fully understand their experience, but you’re there to support them.
- At least you got the news early
While it is true that catching cancer early can increase the odds of successful treatment, this statement can downplay the seriousness of the situation.
- You’ll be alright
While it is important to be positive and offer hope, it is also important to acknowledge the difficulties the patient may be facing.
- Have you tried this and that treatment
Unless you are a medical professional with expertise in cancer treatment, it is not helpful to suggest unproven or alternative treatments. Instead, it is best to encourage the patient to speak with their healthcare provider about treatment options.
- There could be a reason behind this
This statement can come across as dismissive of their suffering and can imply that they deserve to have cancer. Dealing with cancer is hard enough as it is, telling them that it happened for some mysterious or divine reason just makes it worse.
- You’re so brave
While it’s important to acknowledge their resilience, being constantly praised for bravery or strength can be exhausting. It’s okay to express admiration for their perseverance, but also acknowledge that it’s okay to have moments of fear or vulnerability.
- One of my friends had the same cancer and they didn’t make it
Comparing their experience to someone else’s can be hurtful and scary. Instead, focus on their individual situation and offer support.
And a few more things to avoid saying:
- “You’re lucky, you’ll lose weight from the chemotherapy.”
- “I know someone who had cancer and they’re completely fine now, so don’t worry.”
- “You’re going to be bald anyways, might as well shave your head.”
- “You’re going to be fine, cancer is so treatable these days.”
- “At least you’ll get a lot of attention and sympathy now.”
- “Oh you got the good cancer!”
- “I know someone who had cancer, he just drank a lot of carrot juice and he was cured.”
- “You look great, are you sure you’re really sick?”
- “You should try this alternative treatment I heard about, it cured my friend’s cancer.”
- “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, I would just give up.”
- “You’re lucky, you’ll be getting a lot of time off work.”
- “I know someone who had the same cancer as you and they didn’t make it, so be prepared.”
- You brought this on yourself with your lifestyle choices.”
- “I’m sure it’s not that bad, you’ll be back to normal soon.”
- “I don’t want to hear about your cancer, it’s depressing.”
- “You’re going to die anyway, why bother with treatment?”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “You’re so strong, I couldn’t handle it.”
- “I know how you feel.”
- “You’re lucky it’s not stage 4.”
- “Just think positive and you’ll beat it.”
- “Maybe it’s a good thing, it’s giving you a chance to change your life.”
- “I read this article about a miracle cure, have you tried it?”
- “I don’t know how you’re going to pay for all of this.”
- “You will get to choose your new boobs”
So instead of trying to offer a quick fix, what really makes a difference is having someone listen and validate our feelings. Saying things like “I’m here for you” or “I’m sorry you’re going through this” can go a long way. It shows that you care and that you’re willing to support us through this tough time. For more ideas about what to say, checkout this blog.
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