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5 Things You Should Never Ever Say to Someone with Cancer


It’s the word we hope to never hear.

As breast cancer awareness month comes to a close, we must remember we are all impacted by cancer.

When I heard that C-word from the doctor. I made an unusual decision to fight back with joy. I had been studying joy for the previous year. In fact, the diagnosis arrived two weeks before I turned in the manuscript. The news trashed my book and my life.

I had been studying joy during the relatively good times of life, now I had to scout for it in amidst great suffering and pain. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that more than whimsy, joy is the weapon we use to fight life’s battles.  And sometimes you’ve got to poke holes in the darkness until it bleeds light.

5 Things You Should Never Ever Say to Someone with Cancer

I learned much about joy weaponry, but I’ve also discovered some of the hottest, hardest hits come from friendly fire. People’s well-meaning comments can cut to the core.

Here are 5 things you should Never Ever Say to someone battling cancer:

1. “The first moment my momma saw you she said, ‘There’s something wrong with her.’”

Noticing people with cancer isn’t like playing “Where’s Waldo?” You’re not a superstar or brilliant because you can recognize a cancer patient. Many of us try to hide the marks and scars of cancer as best we can. Sorry, no extra points or sticky stars for recognizing us.

2. “Oh, my aunt had that. She died.”

Mentioning that you have cancer has a way of causing all the dead relative stories to surface. You probably know people who died of cancer. Remember that we’re trying our hardest not to be among them.

3. “My friend had the same cancer and she’s fine.”

Cancer isn’t one disease but represents thousands upon thousands of diseases. Each type of cancer has various subtypes with more subtypes being discovered each year. Meanwhile, a person’s age, health history, and immune system affect how the human body responds to treatment. Even if two people’s cancers share the same name, the same staging, the same location, and treatment plan the odds of survival can be extremely different. One person can skate through treatment, the next may be tortured and boxed into the fight of their life. Never assume two cancers are the same–even if they share the same name.

4. “Did you try lavender oil, that I-can’t-remember-the-name Chinese plant compound, or those coffee enemas known to cure cancer?”

In their longing to help, friends and loved ones often suggest unproven alternative care, some of which can undermine treatment or prove dangerous. While well-meaning, it can be hard to listen to someone without medical degrees prescribe off-the-wall, downright odd and even dangerous treatment plans.

5. Silence.

My husband, Leif, and I 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 heard was silence.

Seven months into treatment, I received a call from a friend who apologized for being busy and distracted and not reaching out. After hanging up the phone, I wept.

The ongoing gift of your presence is one of the most powerful things you’ll ever give someone facing cancer or any kind of adversity.

We aren’t looking for pat answers, clichés, or dismissive, false promises like, “You’ll be fine.” Rather, we need you to be present in our lives. To laugh. To love. To say the following eleven magic words:

5 Things You Should Never Ever Say to Someone with Cancer

“Today, you are thought of, prayed for, and you are loved.”

Those never grow old. No matter how many times you text or write them in a card. Those words communicate that you’re with the person in the midst of their storm. Those words can bring healing and hope and encouragement. Will you pick up your phone right now? Scroll through the names. Who can you reach out and text right now with words of encouragement and hope as you extend the gift of your ongoing presence?

Now what would you add to the Never Ever Say list?

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