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What Not to Say to Someone with Cancer


This past year, I’ve had a lot of experience with people saying the wrong thing to me as a cancer patient.

I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and since then I’ve had people say things to me that have left me hurt and frustrated. I’ve had family, friends, colleagues, and medical professionals all say unhelpful things. I don’t expect everyone to know what is and isn’t acceptable to say - after all, not everyone has had experience with cancer. People are well-meaning, and usually don’t intend to cause hurt with what they say… but this is one of those circumstances where I urge you to think before you speak

So here is my list of things not to say to a cancer patient:

“It’s going to be very hard.”

I knew that a cancer diagnosis would mean a really hard and difficult time. It didn’t help me in any way to be told this and offered no comfort

“You’re lucky…”

The phrase ‘you’re lucky’ was told to me by multiple people throughout my cancer journey. One example of this phrase that I received was ‘you’re lucky you’re young’. But I did not feel lucky that I got cancer at a young age.

You know I once had cancer myself”

I did not ask this person about their experience with cancer, they just proceeded to tell me. After a cancer diagnosis, please don’t assume it’s okay to begin sharing your cancer story. It’s not about you in that moment – check first.

“Maybe your hair won’t fall out”, “Don’t worry your hair will grow back”, and “At least if you want to change your hair style or colour it’s easy to grab a wig, always look on the bright side”

I had been told that chemotherapy would result in me losing my hair, however, this person offered their own non-medical opinion which contradicted this… and I did in fact lose my hair. I did not see a bright side - was having a wig sometimes fun? Sure, but I would have still preferred to have my own hair and to not have had cancer.

“You look good, you look well”

I think people were probably quite shocked to see that I looked ‘normal’ after beginning chemo. But I didn’t feel normal and I didn’t feel well. People likely thought of it as a compliment (but I never took it like one!).

“It will be alright. It will be clear”

I heard this I was awaiting the results of my final PET scan. If the scan was clear, I’d be in remission. If the results were bad, I’d undergo further chemo. Thankfully my scan was clear but can imagine if it wasn’t? This person would be feeling tremendous guilt that they’d promised a positive outcome. Don’t make statements you don’t know for certain.

 “You’ll never experience anything as bad again”

After I came out the other side and was cancer free this was said to me. But no one can know that I won’t experience anything as bad in my lifetime. No one has a crystal ball.

“You only had three rounds, you got off easy.”

This was hands down the worst thing that was ever said to me. This phrase totally invalidated my experience. In no way, shape, or form did I get off easy. What I experienced was brutal. There is no getting off easy with cancer.

The takeaway from all of these statements is that you don’t have to look for a positive in a shitty situation. Instead, sit with a cancer patient in their darkest days and validate how awful the situation is – listen.

Now you might have trouble with knowing what to say to someone who has cancer and you may still unintentionally say the wrong thing (we’re human!). But I’m hoping that you’ll say fewer; or, you’ll identify what you said was unhelpful and apologise.

If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with all this information, let me leave you with this general rule to abide by when it comes to what not to say to someone with cancer: If what you are going to say starts with ‘at least’, ‘just think’, ‘you’re lucky’, or ‘look on the bright side’, then I am VERY confident that the words that follow will be something you shouldn’t say to a cancer patient.

Finally, these are some things that you CAN say to a cancer patient after their diagnosis. These things were said to me by some:

- I'm so sorry

- This is so shit

- I don't know what to say

For some more food for thought, watch this video exploring the differences between sympathy and empathy by Brene Brown…

By Hannah, Connect community member