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Things to Avoid Saying to Someone with Cancer: A Guide to Thoughtful Communication

At first, I was going to title this “Absolutely Do Not Say These Things to a Cancer Patient.” But in reality, some of these things are hard not to say to someone in a difficult situation. We will never know exactly how another person feels and we don’t know for sure how they will respond to what you think would be encouraging.

However, here are a few phrases that are generally a good idea to avoid saying to a cancer patient.

And if you’re going through cancer or a really tough time in general, remember that people want to be an encouragement. They want to see you smile and they want to relate as best as they can. So give everyone grace. Give them grace, and give yourself grace too.

“At least…”

This one is at the top of my list. Any sentence that starts with “at least” isn’t helpful.

“At least you’ve got all your limbs.” “At least you have good health care.” “At least it’s just a two-hour drive to Tampa.” “At least there’s a treatment.”

And on and on and so forth. YES! I agree that there are SO many “at leasts” to be thankful for – but – I’m in this dark pit of despair and loneliness and I’m so tired of being poked and giving blood and getting infusions for HOURS and laying in a hospital bed for four or five days and feeling sick 99% of the time and the drive is absolute torture and the drugs are affecting me mentally and physically and I passed out on my way from the bathroom and I have to constantly monitor my temperature and… you just don’t know how I’m feeling!

Internally, a patient knows all of the “at leasts.” But it doesn’t change the pain and despair that takes over (much of it caused by chemo drugs) during a dark and weak time.

“It could always be worse.”

Yup, it could. Totally realize it. Not helpful. Thanks for letting me know.

“It’s probably caused by….”

NO! Do not pass GO, do not collect 200 dollars. We don’t know what caused the random DNA break and it’s too late to go back and change things. Again, not helpful.

“You’re strong, you’ve got this!”

This one isn’t terrible. It’s encouraging. It’s hopeful. But most of the time, I was farrrrrr from strong and farrrrr from feeling like I had anything.

This also feels alienating because *I* have to be strong and *I* have to overcome this and fight it myself. What a cancer patient really needs is a team. Someone to say, “We’re going to get you through this! I will be strong for you!”

“Let me know how I can help!”

Another good one that is so well-intentioned! Everyone wants to help! It’s just that so often we don’t know how to help someone in a situation that we may not have experienced ourselves.

A better way to approach this is to ask a caregiver what is needed and provide options for things that you know you can do. Maybe you’re good at putting a meal train together. Or maybe you’re great at rallying the troops to create a lot of cards to send in the mail. Getting physical cards and letters REALLY made my day. Sometimes going to the mailbox was the absolute highlight of my day too. Maybe you’re good at putting a small care package together that includes candles and self-care products.

So instead of saying “how can,” say “this is what I can.”

And just do it.

Have you had experience with cancer or gone through a very dark time? What did others say that helped? What did they say that hurt? How can someone show their support without being a burden?


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Anyone who has been touched by cancer should know that they are not alone and that there are others who have experienced similar challenges.

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