10 Things You Should Never (Ever) Say to Someone with Cancer

Here are some ill-advised things people have said to me as I’ve been battling cancer.

Margaret Feinberg (www.margaretfeinberg.com) is the author of several books, including Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears. (It also comes in a Bible study format.) She writes here about the ill-advised things people have said to her as she has been battling cancer:

1. “I understand exactly what you’re going through.”

Even if you’ve battled cancer, no two fights are the same. The treatment plans differ, the bodily responses differ, the chemotherapy differs in types, amounts, and strengths. Even if you’ve been on a parallel journey, no cancer road is the same.

2. “My dog had cancer, too.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard sad stories of pets with cancer. I’m sorry for your animals. Really, I am. But please don’t try to connect through Fefe or Foofoo’s diagnosis.

FightBackWithJoy_PrintFinal.indd3. “I’ll do anything to help.”

Whenever someone faces adversity, people toss this well-meaning offer around like confetti. But it often proves to be a false promise. Your “anything” probably doesn’t include taking someone’s five kids for three weekends in a row, driving to chemotherapy appointments that last 12 hours every week, or paying off the latest $12,000 medical bill.

It’s better to simply ask, “What can I do to help?” That way you can decide if it’s something you can or cannot do. Or, offer a few manageable suggestions: a few hours of house cleaning; mowing the lawn; an afternoon of babysitting; a gift card to their favorite grocery store.

4. “The first moment my momma saw you she said, ‘There’s something wrong with her.’”

Sorry, no sticky stars for recognizing that someone has cancer. Noticing us isn’t like playing “Where’s Waldo?” Many of us try to hide the marks and scars of cancer as best we can.

5. “Oh, my aunt had that. She died.”

Mentioning that you have cancer has a way of causing all the dead relative stories to surface. You probably know people who died of cancer. Remember that we’re trying our hardest not to be among them.

6. “My friend had the same cancer and she’s fine.”

Cancer isn’t one disease, and it isn’t just several categories of disease. Cancer represents thousands upon thousands of diseases. Each type of cancer has various subtypes with more subtypes being discovered each year.

Also, a person’s age, health history, and immune system affect how the human body responds to treatment. Even if two people’s cancers share the same name, the same staging, and the same location, the treatment plan and odds of survival can be extremely different. One person can skate through treatment, while the next may be tortured and in the fight of their life. Never assume two cancers are the same.

7. “Did you try lavender oil, that I-can’t-remember-the-name Chinese plant compound, or those coffee enemas known to cure cancer?”

In their longing to help, friends and loved ones often suggest unproven alternative care, some of which can undermine treatment or prove dangerous. They mean well, but it can be hard to listen to someone without medical degrees prescribe off-the-wall, downright odd and even dangerous treatment plans.

8. “Been there, done that.”

“Been there, done that!” is appropriate for activities like visiting Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon, but nothing about great adversity, pain, suffering, or loss should be touted as, “Been there, done that!” The expression is dismissive, hurtful, and unhelpful. Christ never looked at anyone and said, “Been there, done that.” He chose the way of compassion and entered into people’s suffering.

The better response: “I (or someone I loved) faced a similar challenge, and I’m so sorry. Let me know if there are any specific ways I can support you during this time.”

9. “You look better than the last time I saw you.”

Though intended to be encouraging, what the person undergoing treatment hears is, “You looked awful the last time saw you.” Our bodies are going through so much change with surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, and a laundry list of medications. Resist the urge to assess our physical appearance.

10. Silence.

My husband, Leif, and I were warned that people would disappear from our lives. After the initial flood of responses, we were tempted to think, “That’s not true!” Then, silence arrived. The warning proved true. I think of names and faces of those I’ve known, loved, and even worked with for many years who have never said a word. I know they know. They know I know. Yet all I heard was silence.

Seven months into treatment, I received a call from a friend who apologized for being busy and distracted and not reaching out. After I hung up the phone, I wept.

The gift of your presence is one of the most powerful things you’ll ever give someone facing cancer or any kind of adversity. We aren’t looking for pat answers, clichés, or dismissive, false promises like, “You’ll be fine.” Rather, we need you to be present in our lives. To laugh. To love. To say the following seven magic words:

“I’m thinking of you and praying for you.”

Those never grow old. No matter how many times you text or write them in a card. Those words communicate that you’re with the person in the midst of their storm. Those words can bring healing and hope and encouragement.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Margaret Feinberg
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  • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

    It seems that we can never say enough times that the best response to someone else’s bad news is ALWAYS “I’m sorry” and the simple gift of presence. I do have one question. I’m not sure what to make of the story of the friend who called you after seven months. Did you cry because you needed that friend earlier and it was too late? Because you were glad she figured it out finally? I’m asking because I think many of us will find at one time or another that someone we are friendly with goes through a hard time and we suddenly realize too much time has gone by since we’ve been in touch. And we might wonder: Should I call or will calling at this point just make me look like a bigger jerk for not calling earlier? I’m not sure whether this story is meant to say “Call no matter how long it’s been” or “Don’t be the jerk who doesn’t call for seven months!” Maybe this is nitpicking but I think your thoughts on this could be useful. Thank you for this excellent list.

    • MargaretFeinberg

      Hi Ellen– I wept because I was so overjoyed to hear from them again. To know that they were fighting and praying for me. Definitely call no matter how long it’s been. That gift of presence is the best you can offer. Thanks for reading.

      • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

        Thanks for clarifying that, I wondered the same thing. My mom has been fighting cancer for two years and surprisingly I was the silent one. I didn’t realize it at first. But one day I recognized I was avoiding the topic of cancer with my mom, really I was just avoiding. It surprised me so much because we’ve always been close and I expected myself to respond differently. I think cancer’s effect on relationships has been the biggest surprise to me. I’m still awkward with the reality that my relationship with my mom has undergone such a drastic shift, but at least it’s something I’m aware of and we’re talking about.

        Anyhow, thank you for sharing this great list. I don’t take it lightly that you’ve chosen to bless others through your own painful journey. Blessings!

    • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

      Such a great question! Thanks for asking it. I was wondering the same thing.

  • TimsArmyWifey

    I disagree with # 7 for sure … they aren’t “Unproven” and many people have been helped. Trying to help out is a good thing and chemo is known to be poision so why NOT try something else first? At least you have friends who care enough to try to help

    • bakabomb

      So, is there a particular brand I should use for these coffee enemas, or can I just buy whatever’s on sale?

    • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

      It’s irrelevant if you disagree. Margaret was sharing from her personal journey what was hurtful to her in general. My mother has cancer and I’ve learned there are appropriate times for sharing unconventional treatments with people. The lady in the check out line at the grocery store shouldn’t offer the odd home remedy, she has no legs of trust to stand on. However a member of the family or dear friend with reliable information MIGHT be able to offer an alternative suggestion. Who offers the information and how is key. Also most people are offended when their ‘miracle cure’ is rejected. That’s just not helpful or something a person fighting for their life needs to deal with. Also, believe me, the person faced with a life threatening illness is doing their homework and considering all the options. Unless you’ve been there (and really even if you have) calling someone out for putting “poison” in their body isn’t your call to make, it’s just harsh.

      • TimsArmyWifey

        Compassion is never wrong and trying to be helpful either. When you share on the internet then folks will chime in with their thoughts – that doesn’t negate her journey whatsoever.

        • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

          Of course compassion is a good thing. But you should probably go back and read your comment because compassion isn’t what came to my mind. And of course people will chime in on public blogs. That doesn’t absolve you of tack and kindness.

          • TimsArmyWifey

            I wasn’t untactful or unkind at all. I simply stated that I disagreed – you’re the one who got huffy. I hope you have a good day anyhow.

  • Linda N

    Margaret, this is so beautifully said. I was blessed by some wonderful friends who knew just what to do when a family member was diagnosed, while others -though well-meaning – added to our burden. One of the sweetest things was when a friend left a “goodie bag” on my porch early one morning with snacks, scented lotion & massage oil, a framed prayer, a gift card for dinner delivery from a local restaurant, movie tickets for my sons, etc. Should the need ever arise, I want to be as good a friend & supporter as my friend was to us, so I am going to print out your list as a reminder of how to do it with love. Thank you!

    • MargaretFeinberg

      I love that, Linda! Such a sweet friend.

  • http://prinsenhouse.blogspot.ca/ Jeannie

    I appreciated this post very much, having just lost my mom to cancer this past summer. I have great memories of people who said and did such kind and compassionate things for our family. I can also think of a couple of other helpful things:
    – Don’t comment on the person’s choices re treatment unless he/she asks for your input. And if the person is in the late stages of life, don’t offer opinions about what’s happening. For example, a day before my mom’s death, a visitor said she thought we should be giving my mom something to drink, whereas the med staff had already explained to us why that wouldn’t be advisable.
    – If you offer to provide a meal (something we greatly appreciated), ASK whether the recipient would like you to share the meal with them or whether they’d rather take it and eat it at their convenience. We had some awkward moments when people brought food and it became clear they planned to stay and eat with us, which made it quite a different experience from just eating when it worked best for us.
    Finally, sorry to be picky here, but “I’m thinking of you and praying for you” is 8 words, not 7.

    Thank you for all these helpful suggestions.

    • MargaretFeinberg

      Oh yes– I love this: “If you offer to provide a meal (something we greatly appreciated), ASK
      whether the recipient would like you to share the meal with them or
      whether they’d rather take it and eat it at their convenience.” That can save a lot of misunderstandings! Thanks, Jeannie!

  • http://resministries.com/ Lisa Copen

    An excellent article. It affirms that when it comes to cancer vs chronic illness we have a lot of similar reactions to those crazy things people say. I have a ministry for those with chronic illness and have many lists like this of what to say/not to say to one who is ill. As people with illness we can really show compassion and understanding to those battling cancer, because we have some insight on what not to say! I hope we remember to be intentional about our words and choose them carefully. Thank you for your article. I have shared on our Facebook pages.

    • MargaretFeinberg

      Thanks for sharing, Lisa!

  • americanwoman343

    This is a hard subject. I’ve been treated for cancer and i heard some surprising things from some folks – foot in mouth syndrome, for sure. But i am afraid articles like these are the things that produce silence. I’d rather talk to someone who said the wrong thing than have people flee for fear of doing it wrong. I feel like grace was required from me, too – those folks weren’t trying to hurt or scare me. They were scared for me…so we wound up being scared together. My favorites were the 90 year old ladies at church who both had had breast cancer “way back when” – thanks be to God, they were still alive, and maybe i would be, too! I say, risk saying something -if you say the wrong thing, at least you didn’t leave them alone.

    • MargaretFeinberg

      Agreed– silence is the worst. And I know I’ve made many of the same mistakes myself. I learned the best thing to say is “Today, you are in my thoughts, you are prayed for, and you are loved.”

    • echapmanjr

      I love your response and your kind tone. I think love trumps demands for introspective precaution. If the author considered her tenth item first, the others would not have been necessary. At least “the nine” were there for her.

  • murali

    Rather than writing what not, may be on a positive note, an article on What to Say would be ideal too.