According to the American Cancer Society, approximately one in three Americans will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime. And even for those who never battle the disease personally, with ever-increasing cancer rates around the world, it’s likely that, at some point, you’ll know someone who is. Unfortunately, even for the most emotionally-attuned individuals, it’s often hard to know just what to say to someone waging war against the disease. For every uplifting statement someone makes to a loved one battling cancer, there’s an equally insensitive one that gets uttered, making an already difficult situation even worse.
“When communicating with anyone who is suffering, especially with cancer, it is important to be there for the other person. This means being solicitous and seeing what you can do to help or support him/her. What is usually not helpful to do is to commiserate or offer unsolicited advice,” says therapist Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, MS, LCPC, co-founder of the Marriage Restoration Project. “These are basic rules for being a good listener. They surely apply when trying to be there for someone who is going through such a hard time in their life.”
If you want to show your support without accidentally putting your foot in your mouth, make sure you avoid these things you should never say to someone battling cancer.
1 “You should try this diet I read about.”
While you may be doing it with the best intentions, trying to give someone advice on how to treat their cancer—especially if you’ve never found yourself in their position—is generally inadvisable. Not only might your methods interfere with interventions their existing treatment team has already come up with, those well-intentioned comments about diets, yoga, and cryotherapy also turn the conversation about their care into one about your feelings.
“It’s usually not wise to offer advice or challenge their medical decisions. If they are getting chemo, don’t tell them how dangerous it is and that they should be trying natural treatments or that you have a doctor they could go to that could help. Similarly, if they are going the natural route, don’t advise them to get chemo and radiation,” says Slatkin.
2 “I know how you feel.”
Commiserating with someone who’s ill may seem like a good idea, but in the long run, it can severely diminish the sick person’s feeling and experience. Even if you’ve had the same kind of cancer and have received the same treatment, no two experiences with the disease are the same.
“If you know others who have battled cancer, don’t say, ‘Well, I know what it’s like to go through this because my friend or family member also had cancer.’ Even if you are trying to relate and help, it is usually not helpful because for the patient, because no one truly understands the pain they are feeling,” says Slatkin.
3 “I know someone who died from that.”
While it’s rarely a good idea to do so, many friends and family members of those battling cancer try to commiserate by sharing stories—albeit not always positive ones. Telling someone dealing with cancer about people you know who didn’t survive their particular ailment will only make them feel worse—and more frightened—in the long run.
4 “No chemo? Lucky you!”
There are few things about being diagnosed with cancer that most people would consider “lucky.” Though it may cut one source of worry from a person’s life if they don’t have to undergo chemotherapy, radiation and surgery aren’t exactly a walk in the park. And considering that many cancers reoccur, just because they get to skip the chemo this time doesn’t mean it won’t become a necessity at some point in the future.
5 “Didn’t you used to smoke?’
Are there habits, like smoking or excessive drinking, that can contribute to a person’s cancer risk? Absolutely. However, if you’re trying to be a supportive friend, it’s not your place to bring those “what if”s up. After all, correlation and causation aren’t one and the same, and even if it’s clear that a specific habit might be related to a person’s cancer, there’s no good reason to make an already-sick person feel worse, or like their condition is their fault.
6 “Everything happens for a reason.”
While you may truly believe that everything happens for a reason, but telling that to a cancer patient lacks compassion, to say the least. Implying such suggests that there’s some lesson to be learned from getting sick, when, in many cases, that’s simply not the truth. As hard as it might be to accept that not everything is going to be okay, it’s important to try not to rationalize the illness: “Be willing to sit in those feelings with them—you do not have to fix them!” says therapist Erika Miley, M.Ed, LMHC. “Just be there with them.”
7 “Tons of people are surviving that kind of cancer these days.”
Luckily, it is true that a person’s odds of beating cancer are better than ever. In fact, cancer survivability increased by 13 percent between 2004 and 2013 alone. However, just because you think your friend has a good chance of surviving doesn’t mean that’s necessarily true—and telling them so diminishes their feelings about their diagnosis.
8 “Look how thin you’ve gotten!”
While it may seem like a compliment to comment on the positive parts of a person’s cancer treatment, mentioning things like their sudden weight loss is an extremely insensitive choice. After all, they didn’t voluntarily lose weight, and those pounds they’ve shed are likely the result of either the illness itself or the incredibly difficult treatment your loved one is going through.
9 “This has really made me think about my own mortality.”
Finding out your friend or family member has been diagnosed with cancer can surely have you start thinking about your own mortality, and even prompt a desire to start checking off a few of those bucket list items. That said, when you express these thoughts to someone who’s sick, it’s a clear sign that you’re making their struggle about your own feelings, when the focus should remain in them.
10 “Are you worried about what your body is going to look like afterward?”
Of course, many cancer patients may have concerns about the loss of their breasts or internal organs, the surgical scars they might sport after tumor removal, or any medical devices they’ll have to live with for the foreseeable future. However, when you ask someone battling cancer about their worries regarding their physical appearance, you’re ignoring that their experience goes far beyond the aesthetic, and that their looks are likely the least of their concerns when it comes to major surgery, radiation, or chemo.
11 “We’re in this together.”
It’s undeniably nice to feel like someone has your back when you’re going through a major medical issue. However, telling a loved one that you’re in it together feels disingenuous, at best—after all, they’re the one getting treatment, dealing with the pain of their illness, and, in many cases, the only one experiencing the very real fear that comes along with wondering what the rest of their life might look like.
12 “Are you going to wear a wig?”
First of all, not every type of cancer treatment—and this includes many forms of chemotherapy—cause hair loss. Additionally, focusing on hair loss, or what a cancer patient might do about it, minimizes what they’re going through by focusing solely on the aesthetic.
13 “You’re so strong. You’ll be fine.”
Is it comforting to hear that people think you’re strong for battling cancer? Sure. However, not every cancer patient wants to feel like everyone’s expecting them to keep a brave face on at all times—sometimes, they’ll simply want to be able to express their fears and frustration. And if you think that personal strength and cancer survivability have much to do with one another, what are you saying about all the people who don’t make it?
14 “At least you don’t have to go to work!”
Any excuse to take a break from your stressful work may seem great to you, but remember: getting treated for cancer is no vacation. Even if it seems like all your friend or family member is doing is lying in bed and receiving visitors, there’s a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes—and in most cases, it’s way more difficult than a day job.
15 “Getting cancer is my biggest fear.”
The thought of getting cancer may be a horrifying prospect to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s you should share those feelings with someone who’s actually going through it. After all, does, “Your life is my biggest fear” sound supportive to you? “Usually fear is where insensitive responses come from,” says Miley. “It’s okay to be afraid, but here’s the thing: it is your job to calm your body and take control of that fear. It is not the job of the person who just gave you that information.”
16 “You have to think positive.”
The power of positive thinking is undeniable, but that doesn’t mean looking on the bright side can cure all that ails you. In fact, according to a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, there’s no strong link between positive thinking and positive outcomes in cancer treatment, so if optimism is a top priority to you, make sure to focus on yours and yours alone. “Do not interrupt with any advice, unless you are actually connected to an expert in that type of cancer or illness,” says Miley.
17 “I don’t want to talk about myself. Let’s talk about you.”
It’s always a nice idea to lend your ear to a friend who’s dealing with a serious health issue. That said, that doesn’t necessarily mean your friend is eager to talk solely about themselves. Considering that many cancer patients spend the bulk of their time shuffling between doctor’s appointments and bed, it’s sometimes nice to have a distraction. If your friend with cancer says they want to hear about your life, assume that’s more than just lip service and feel free to open up.
18 “You just focus on getting better.”
Cancer patients are just people being treated for an illness; they shouldn’t be social pariahs. While someone being treated for cancer may not have the energy or desire to go out every night of the week, don’t assume that their sole focus is their treatment. If you’re going out with friends, don’t be shy about inviting your friend battling cancer—in fact, doing so might just make their day.
19 “This must really put things into perspective.”
While having cancer might completely change a person’s outlook on life, don’t expect that it will necessarily do so. Expecting that people will have some kind of epiphany just because they get sick puts undue pressure on them to have some kind of spiritual awakening, when, in many cases, all they really want to do is get better.
20 “Let me know if I can help out.”
This may seem like a kind thing to say to someone who’s dealing with a serious illness, but it may actually burden them more than it helps. Asking an amorphous question like this, especially when someone is seriously ill, means you’re asking them to start doling out tasks, when they’re probably pretty busy as it is. Instead, simply help: bring them food, give them a gift certificate for a house-cleaning service, or offer your pet-sitting services; a little initiative will go a long way.