Things not to say when someone tells you they have/had cancer
In the spirit of standing up to cancer this week, I thought it was worth sharing some do's and don'ts when it comes to talking about cancer, having experienced the whole gamut when I was in treatment and even now, 3 years into remission. ❤️
- •My __________ has/had cancer; he/she died.DON'T SAY THIS. It's shocking how many people respond this way, and I think it happens because folks are looking for a way to relate and empathize, but telling someone who's battling cancer that someone you know died from cancer is not helpful, even if it's factual. Instead, try this version: "my ________ has/had cancer; I can understand what you're going through and am here for you." Simple, honest, and hopeful.
- •I'm so sorry. (Mic drop)DON'T SAY THIS. Again, I understand the instinct here- you hear bad news, you say you're sorry. But saying this in isolation makes the situation seem like a death sentence, which it's not thanks to modern medicine. Instead, try this: "I'm sorry to hear you're dealing with this- what is the treatment protocol? Need some company?" This helps the patient engage in a convo about the solution instead of dwelling on a difficult reality.
- •What type of cancer/stage is it?TREAD LIGHTLY WITH THIS. Sometimes people will voluntarily offer up what type of cancer and the staging they have, but in some cases, the cancer may be in a part of the body that the patient isn't super comfortable talking about, so best to let the messenger divulge this on their own volition.
- •Let me know if I can do anything.DON'T SAY THIS. I know this response comes from a good place, but most folks who've just been dealt a cancer diagnosis or are going through treatment don't have the energy to think about whom to ask for what- it's kinda tantamount to giving the patient a homework assignment. If you want to help a friend or loved one with cancer by doing something, just go on ahead and do it proactively. The recipient will be most grateful.
- •You're so brave!DON'T SAY THIS. Unfortunately, "bravery" has become an overused term, and applying it to someone with cancer can come off as trite. In addition, the choice between receiving treatment and ignoring the cancer/doing nothing is fundamentally not a matter of bravery- it's a matter of survival and wanting to live a long, fulfilling life. Instead try this: "I admire how you're handling this" or "you're a fucking bad-ass and will beat this shit."
- •....... (aka no response/nothing)DON'T SAY THIS EITHER. I get the fear people have- what if you say the wrong thing? But saying nothing can make the person dealing with cancer feel very alone and isolated. Silence can be deafening. Instead, try this: "I'm not sure what to say, but I'm here for ya —whether you want to talk, cry or forget all about it for a while."
- •Sending a huge hug and ❤️ to anyone out there who's dealt with cancer or is dealing with it right now. You got dis.