What Not to Say to Someone With Cancer

We’ve all been impacted by cancer. Whether it’s dealing with it personally, through a friend or a loved one or even just hearing about it in the news. It’s an unfortunate reality for so many people. Those of us who are not dealing with cancer in our own health can find it an uncomfortable topic to discuss.

Ever mean to say something supportive, only to have it come out completely wrong? You’re not alone. While everyone’s battle with cancer is unique, many of us struggle with how to be supportive. Use the following advice as a resource for your next conversation with someone dealing with cancer.

Don’t say: “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.”

It’s easy to say this, and most people probably feel that is the right thing to do. The intention is genuine but all you’re really doing is putting the decision making on them. They have more important things to worry about. If you want to help – be specific.

Instead say: “I’m going to cook a meal for your family next week. I can bring it by Thursday unless there’s a better day for you. Does pasta and a salad work?”

Don’t say: “Be grateful you don’t have (insert another disease).”

No matter what type of cancer or stage of cancer a person is diagnosed with, it is still a life-altering diagnosis. No one wants to be reminded how much worse a situation can be. Positivity is what anyone dealing with cancer needs in their life, as long as it’s genuine.

Instead say: “If you feel comfortable sharing, I’d like to know more about your cancer.”

Don’t say: “I know someone with that type of cancer. Let me tell you all about it.”

While you may be trying to be helpful by providing a real life example of how someone else dealt with cancer, each person’s battle is unique. What happens to one person may never happen to another. Also, if the person you’re sharing about had complications, that type of news can cause unnecessary anxiety.

Instead say: “I know someone with that type of cancer. If you feel like you’d like to talk with them about their experience, I can put you in touch with him/her.”

Don’t say: Nothing.

While you may not know what to say exactly, saying nothing can be more hurtful to a friend or loved one. Cancer can make people feel isolated and alone, when friends go M.I.A. that can make someone feel worse. Saying something is always better than nothing.

Instead say: “I’m not sure what to say and I wish I could make this all go away, but I’m here for you. Let me know if you want to talk about it, cry about it or get some much need distraction. I support you.”

Carilion Clinic's Cancer Center is accredited by The Commission on Cancer, a program of the American College of Surgeons recognizing high quality and patient-centered programs. 

This article was reviewed by David Buck, M.D., Blue Ridge Cancer Care oncologist.