Hearing this refrain, “I’m fine, I’m fine, really, I’m fine” at the end of a telephone line from a dear family member who had cancer nearly drove me crazy. I knew that she wasn’t fine.
Reflecting back, I realize that I may have been asking the wrong question or saying the wrong things. It is tough to know what to say when someone you love is seriously ill with cancer. But thanks to cancer bloggers who have been venting, there is a clearer picture of the right and wrong things to say or do when your friend or loved one has cancer.
What not to say to someone with cancer: Here are a few “Don’ts”
Don’t Ask: ‘How Are You?’
‘How are you?’ –that ‘go-to’ polite question we are trained from birth to rely upon in social encounters–is exactly the wrong question to be asking. Of course, I asked it. Now I’ve learned that the answer “I’m fine, no really, I’m fine,” was my loved one’s trying to make me feel better.
As Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham related in a New York Times article on the subject, “I found myself consoling those who asked and then fighting the contagion of grief and fear.”
Don’t Say: Stay Positive or Keep Fighting
Emma Betts, a blogger with Stage 4 melanoma, explained why this statement bothered her. “Even though people mean well by saying these words, every time I hear them I feel that I am not trying hard enough or doing everything I can do to survive this disease. You don’t want to live the little time that you have feeling this way.”
Don’t Ask: What is your prognosis?
Curious though you may be, this is an inappropriate and extremely personal question. If the person wants to tell you, she will.
Don’t Say: If you are going to get cancer, that is the best kind to get
Or “at least you only have…” When someone is sick, treating their illness as less important than it is does not help them. You are not building anyone up by downplaying their condition.
Don’t ask: Did you smoke? Didn’t you use sunscreen?
In other words, blaming someone’s lifestyle is not supportive. There are many reasons that people get cancer, environmental exposures, genetic predispositions and just bad luck. Hinting that a person gets cancer because she didn’t take care of herself is wrong. It is a defensive mechanism to keep at bay the thought that cancer can happen to anybody; which sadly is the truth. Cancer can happen to anyone, people who eat fruits and vegetables, people who run marathons. This is not a time for blame.
But You Don’t Look Sick
As spoonies will attest, when this statement comes from a place of disbelief- where the sick person is being doubted- it is damaging.
Don’t talk about other people that you know with similar cancers
Even if you have a story in which your friend or relative has survived for twenty years after a cancer diagnosis, don’t try to make comparisons. Every cancer is different. Every experience is different.
Don’t say “It’s Only Hair”
Think about it. As blogger Stephanie Seban states, “Believe me! It’s not just about losing your hair, it’s about appearing to be sick. A bald head or thinning hair is a daily reminder of the battle you are up against. Every time you look in the mirror, you are reminded that you have cancer. All of the attention your baldness attracts, is a reminder that you have cancer.”
Try to keep your feelings of distress to yourself
Give your loved one the space to speak.
What Should You Say?
The words, “I’m sorry that you are going through this” and/ or “I don’t know what to say but I can listen” can mean a great deal to someone going through a cancer diagnosis. Open ended questions like “Do you want to tell me about your cancer and what you’re going through?” empowers the person with cancer and gives them the choice.
Instead of asking “is there anything I can do?” which puts the burden on your sick loved one, ask them what kind of food they can handle, say you are going to bring some and then follow up. Offer to take them to a doctor’s appointment and then do it.
One piece of advice that has come from cancer bloggers is, stay connected. Even if they cannot or do not have the energy to respond. Just let your friend know that you are thinking about them and care.
Finally, try to talk about something besides cancer. Dealing with cancer, day in and day out is exhausting.
Great article. I get so tired of people saying to me “You look great”. I have stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer spread to my bones. Some days I feel good but others not so much. How I look has little to do with his I feel. When people say you look great it totally stifles any desire to tell his I feel.
what should I say when people ask me how I’m feeling when most of the time I feel like crap!
Some days are better than others but I do not feel like I did Pre cancer treatment,
I’m tired of people asking me how I feel!
One really helpful thing you can say is that you know of an incredible resource and you’ll send it to them. It’s the NCCN Guidelines for Patients found at https://www.nccn.org/patients/guidelines/cancers.aspx. These are the recommendations of the top cancer sub-specialists in the country and is like having the “dream team” of docs on your side. They are the treatment guidelines that doctors use to determine the best care for patients adapted into language we can all understand. It’s helpful for all patients and families, especially when we don’t know what to say to show we care!
While obviously very well meaning, I would not recommend this. Maybe, at most you might ask if they are interested in a resource you have and then offer it to be sent if they say they are But as a cancer patient, I got so burdened and overwhelmed by people trying to help with additional resources.
Thank you for the site info.
When someone I just told that I have cancer and they say to me it sure doesn’t show, you look great. I know I don’t look great, they wouldn’t look great either. It’s my pet peeve.
I have metastatic breast cancer now in my lower lumbar bones. I agree with allot of the top things on what not to say …I have helped console allot of people in the past 10 years who are newly diagnosed and believe me they love to hear how I and others I know are doing after there treatments. Every cancer is different but believe me it sure can calm a person when they have some to talk with that as been in a situation like what they are in now. No one can know or begin to know how this feels unless you have gone and still going thru this yourself! We will always here what not to say from people because they just do not know how to react to this type of news…but we do !!!!! God Bless you ALL!
Thank you so much Jodi for your comment and thank you for helping others who are newly diagnosed! Best wished for you, Kathleen
Just found out frnd of mine getting chemo & radi. I have lots of experience w family members so I just say my thoughts & prayers w you.
How about saying a prayer, prayer works for all kind of situations.
Wow. This is great. Thank you to all who have commented. I am a radiation therapist and have been treating patients for 22 years now. It really is nice to hear “what not to say”.
Thank you Kathleen. Thank you Marcie for that website. I will check it out and pass it on.
This is really nice, in all honesty I learnt from the write-up. Thanks alot
Personally, I liked to be asked how I was feeling. I didn’t like when people assumed I felt a certain way and that I needed consoling. Since we are all unique, there is no definitive list of what to say and do. Here is a link to a blog post that talks about what to say and do. http://tinyurl.com/z9anxut
No prayers. Unless the person with cancer initiates the praying. I had chaplains ignore the information that I had no religious affiliation and come in to pray over me. Deeply offensive, people, and patronising.