Things You May Not Want to Say to a Cancer Patient

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 feels and we don’t know for sure how they will respond to what you think would be encouraging.

But I’ll list a few things that were said a few times through my treatment that didn’t help me much. 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. In many cases we don’t know 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.

I imagine this list may be added to over time. And I will definitely post about the flip-side: What You Should Absolutely Say to a Cancer Patient! So more to come!

Meanwhile, 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?

Photo by Heather Ford on Unsplash

2 responses to “Things You May Not Want to Say to a Cancer Patient”

  1. Spot on Chica! As we say, “ bless their hearts” they are only trying to be helpful and we need to muster up all the grace our brutalized beings can muster in the midst of our great challenge. I realize and I give thanks for this truth , unless you have walked this walk it is absolutely impossible to understand the isolation, marginalization, frustration and so many other “ tions” that go along with the journey. The fact that they are trying to do something , even if it’s unfortunately , unhelpful still shows they are trying. The harder thing to bear are those that fall silent and slip succinctly off the radar altogether. Again I realize they just are freaked out by the ordeal and find it impossible to communicate for fear of just what we are discussing, saying something that ends up being unhelpful. But as we know there are others who need to cling desperately to denial , and the fear of this fickle finger of fate pointing back at them causes them to check out altogether. Least I think that is what I decided about all the ones that fell into this category.
    And oh the “ at least’s”! True that! Just never ever NEVER start a sentence with that …please.
    You are so very right about the cards. Hospitalized and alone for 3 weeks then shipped off to a nursing home for another month and six weeks of home health care followed by 6 weeks at Hope Lodge, those cards meant everything. Do you know I have one dear friend that wrote notes for every day and would send them in lumps so I would have them daily? God bless her I will never forget what a gift they were in some desperately hard days of my lonely journey. That’s helpful!
    From what not to say , I REALLY struggle with the “ you are so strong “ especially with my brother whom adopted this as his mantra. Never even when I was in iCU and throughout all my life teetering ordeal, did he show up, ( only from Atlanta) but the rare text always went like this “ you are the strongest person I know “. And my other least favorite line often followed , “ I could never do what you are doing “. Really ? So you would just roll over and die? I didn’t think of it as strong, what was the alternative? There was no alternative. So praising someone for doing what they have to do , to me was irritating and a cop out, especially when nothing helpful is offered up.
    You’ve got on a very sensitive topic dear , it’s been cathartic just to respond. Thank you ❤️

  2. […] previously wrote a short list of things you probably shouldn’t say to someone diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully, there’s a flip-side of things that cancer patients want to hear – need to […]

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