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Things not to say to someone with cancer

Published: 16 Jan 2017

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s important to surround yourself with a support network. People who can help you through your most difficult moments, and give you strength when you’re feeling emotionally or physically weak.

People within that support network naturally want to comfort you. However, sometimes words of encouragement or sympathy can do more harm than good.

If someone you know is fighting cancer right now, even if you’re trying to be well meaning, there are some things that are better left unsaid.

For example:

“I know how you feel”

Even if you’ve been through cancer yourself, no two experiences are the same. Let cancer sufferers talk about their own journey, in their own words.

“Everything will be fine”

When someone you know is affected by cancer, you want to wish them a speedy recovery, and sometimes this wish comes true. However, it doesn’t for everyone.

It’s human instinct to look on the bright side, but it’s important that you let your loved one talk honestly about their diagnosis and treatment – without sugarcoating the truth.

“Is there anything I can do?”

Offering your assistance is a really helpful thing to do, but an open-ended question can be tiring for someone who is going through cancer treatment.

Instead, offer to do something specific, like get them some groceries, or drive them to their next appointment. Look for ways to make their lives easier without them having to think too much about it. 

“Look on the bright side”

There are very few things you can say to soften the blow of being diagnosed with cancer, least of all trying to trivialize it.

Being grateful that it’s not an aggressive form of cancer, or that chemo will result in weight loss, or that a mastectomy means they can get new boobs is not going to compensate for the fact that they are battling a major illness.

Although we’ve mentioned some of the phrases to avoid, perhaps the worst thing people can do is to say nothing. Being diagnosed with cancer is frightening and isolating, and patients need their loved ones more than ever during this difficult time.

If you’re not sure quite how to talk to someone close to you that is going through cancer, tell them. They will appreciate your honesty, and could well give you the guidance you need to get the tone right.