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The Three Worst Things You Can Say  To Someone Battling Cancer Or Any Kind of Adversity… And You’ve Probably Already Said Them

Over the last few months, I’ve been awed by the outpouring of love, grace, and kindness from around the world in response to the news of my diagnosis. I’ve seen people respond with sensitivity, kindness, and that perfect word at the perfect time as if breathed by the Spirit of God. People’s generosity, kindness, and encouragement have brought me tears of great joy.

But I’ve also been floored, heartbroken, and crushed by some of the responses. These people may have meant well, but the damage they left in their wake is heartbreaking.

The worst part is that I know I’ve been guilty of uttering such awful things myself.

Perhaps we can learn, together, to respond with compassion, a word whose roots can be translated, “to suffer with.”

Here are 3 of the worst things you can say to someone battling cancer or any kind of adversity and what you can say instead: [Tweet this]

1. I’ll Do Anything to Help.

This popular response is thrown around like confetti whenever someone faces adversity, but most of my friends going through a tough time have been heartbroken by this false promise.

I know that’s hard to hear, but I’ve done it, too. I’ve made the well-meaning promise and completely dropped the ball.

Often, anything doesn’t include:

  • Taking five kids on a particular weekend.
  • Driving and with someone during a chemo treatment that lasts 13 hours and requires a 5-hour follow up the next day.
  • Scrubbing a house from top to bottom every week.
  • Helping pay off a $5000 medical bill.

The asks and needs in seasons of great adversity are epic, and most people are ill prepared to do the anything it takes. One friend battling his own adversity admitted, “I’ve learned to tell ask my friends who say they’ll do anything, ‘What does anything look like to you?’ If they don’t quantify their anything, I’ll be hurt and disappointed.

Rather than making the false promise that you’ll do anything, simply ask, “What can I do to help?”

That way you can decide if it’s something you can or cannot do.

The person may not have an answer at the time. Ask again in two weeks. And again in two weeks. And every two weeks for as long as it takes.

Offer a few humble suggestions. Perhaps a gift card or a house cleaning. Perhaps they need the oil in their car changed. Perhaps they could use an afternoon of babysitting. Gently make suggestions, and do whatever is in your power to meet specific requests.

2. Been There, Done That!

“Been there, done that!” is a fine phrase to use for activities like shopping on Black Friday, visiting the Empire State Building, and taking a factory food tour in your hometown.

Nothing about great adversity, pain, suffering, or loss should be described as, “Been there, done that!” The expression is dismissive, hurtful, and unhelpful. Christ never looked at anyone and said, “Been there, done that.” He chose the way of compassion and entered into people’s suffering.

The better response: “I (or someone I loved) faced a similar challenge and I’m so sorry. Let me know if there are any specific was I can support you during this time.

Remember every adversity is different. Even if two houses burn down side by side, the losses will always differ because of the contents. The crisis we face will impact each of us in different ways.

Rather than assume a crisis is impacting someone else the same way it’s impacted you, make time to hear the person’s story if they’re willing to share. Gently ask questions. Listen. Choose to be with the person and love with them the compassion of Christ.

3. Silence.

We were warned that people would disappear from our lives. After the initial flood of responses, we were tempted to think, “That’s not true!” Then silence arrived. The warning proved true.

I think of names and faces of those I’ve known, loved, and even worked with for many years who have never said a word. I know they know. They know I know. Yet all I hear is silence.

I reached out to a childhood friend. Someone who I’ve known for more than 20 years, someone who I sat with as we waited for the news of her father’s death. I sent her an email with the news of the diagnosis. And heard nothing.

I sent her a text, “Did you receive my email?”

I’ll never forget her response: “I did and have thought about you everyday since and what I wanted to say. I am in shock, and yet I don’t know. I’m scared. And I love you. And I want to come and beat up the cancer for you.”

My sweet friend felt what so many feel—unsure of what to say, they say nothing at all.


But the silence hurts.

What do you say to those facing great adversity? [Tweet this]

Here are the seven magical words:

“I’m thinking of you and praying for you.” [Tweet this]

Those words never get old. Those words don’t do any damage. Those words communicate that you’re with the person in the midst of their storm. Those words can bring healing and hope and encouragement.

Just yesterday my sweet friend, Jonathan, sent the following email:

You are loved.
You are thought of.
You are prayed for.”

[Tweet this]

Today... You are loved.

Perhaps those are the best possible words you can ever say to someone facing great adversity. Print them out. Post them on your fridge. Send them to everyone you know who is facing a great battle.

Don’t wait another moment to end the silence and let the people you love know they’re loved. 

*Original photo found, here.

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