The worst things you can say to someone with cancer

Let me know if you need anything’ … The last thing a person needs is to be given another task, and coming up with their own suggestion of what you can do to help is just another burden. Picture: iStock

LAST MONTH, one of my dear friend’s mothers died following a years-long battle with cancer. With grace, levity, and humour, she provided me with a wealth of knowledge, teaching me how to be a good cancer supporter for the inevitable times in which this ubiquitous disease will come into the lives of others around me. These are the most important lessons I learned.

Don’t suggest alternative treatments

Following any cancer diagnosis, friends and family often try one thing they think helps: suggesting alternative treatments, therapies, and diets they’ve read about to get them through their disease. As time goes by, the lemon water/sugar-free/raw food suggestions that they can “cure themselves” with will drive a cancer sufferer crazy.

The best thing you can remind somebody with cancer of is how their medical team has them covered, and — especially in New Zealand — they’re getting the best care possible. Rest assured, if the alkaline diet was as good as the blogs claim, oncologists would be screaming it from the rooftops.

Don’t say ‘let me know if you need anything’

Among the stressful physical toll that treatment takes on your body, and what’s called “chemo brain” (thinking and memory problems), dealing with cancer creates a fog of time and space.

The last thing a person needs is to be given another task, and coming up with their own suggestion of what you can do to help is just another burden. Instead, be specific: say, “I’m going to the pharmacy, can I fill any of your prescriptions?” or “can I look after your cat for the next few weeks?”

Don’t say ‘you’re so brave’

Telling a person with cancer that they are brave implies that they have a choice not to be. It can also give them a sense of guilt in the hours when they feel scared — like they’re somehow letting others down. Bravery is a choice. Cancer survival isn’t. When there is no other option, it’s better to hear, “I’m so proud of you” or “you’re so tough”, because they are subjective assessments of a person’s strength.

Don’t speak if you have nothing to say

When you’re sitting at somebody’s hospital bed, there’s this intrinsic human need to be entertaining and make conversation. When you speak just to fill the silence, you end up asking questions that only serve to aid you in your quest to understand mortality, and don’t help them. You don’t have to speak — just being there, at someone’s side, comfortable in silence, can mean everything.

Don’t ask their prognosis

This one really only applies to new or infrequent visitors. Cancer patients get really sick of explaining “their story” to every new person who walks through their door. Sometimes, the thought of having to explain your cancer, your treatment, and recovery hopes is enough to turn new visitors away. Of course you want to know somebody’s prognosis, so the best advice is to ask somebody close to them and get the information second-hand.

Admit that cancer sucks

The “positive attitude” schtick has its place in cancer treatment. So does being real. You don’t always have to provide somebody going through cancer with the bright side of things. You don’t have to make suggestions, or say “I’m sorry”. You don’t have to tell them they’ll come out the other side a better person. What really does help, sometimes, is just admitting that cancer sucks. It just does. Acknowledging a cancer patient’s horrible experience (and not trying to diminish it or add a layman’s perspective) can make them feel more legitimate — and that’s one thing that can actually help them.


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