Updated: Mar 11
And the reasoning behind it.
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Cancer patients already feel secluded and misunderstood from simply being diagnosed with cancer. Believe it or not, what you say can actually amplify those feelings. Here's a list of things to avoid saying to a cancer patient so that you don't actually make their situation worse.
1. Offer help when you really don't plan on carrying through
If you don’t truly mean this statement, please do not say “If you need anything, let me know.” I cannot count how many times I was told this and yet when it the opportunity came, they bailed. The cancer patent already feels alone and as though they are an outcast from their normal circle. Having someone not come through for them when they need it most just makes it worse. If you do mean it though, let it be known, say it time and time again. We truly do appreciate those who say it, mean it, and do it. Wondering how you can help? This post has some great ideas.
2. Explain to them why they shouldn't have cancer
“You’re too young for cancer” or any form of phrase that states they don’t fit a demographic/stereotype of a typical cancer patient. When cancer patients hear these types of statements, they feel annoyed. They, more than anyone, truly believe that they shouldn’t have cancer…but yet, they do. They don’t need you to point out the harsh unfairness of their reality.
3. Inform them that you know someone who died of cancer
“I know someone who had cancer, they died.” You would think it’s pretty clear why you shouldn’t say something to this affect - yet people do say this. Maybe it’s coming from a place of trying to relate or just speaking without thinking, whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. It’s not helpful.
4. Tell them their journey is "over" after treatment
Don't use language that implies they beat cancer after treatment is finished. This one is a pretty big one, therefore I made a blog post just for this topic. Here's why & how it makes them feel (Join the newsletter to be notified when this post goes live).
5. Try to convince them all is fine
“You’ll be okay.” Positive vibes are important, but it feels as though you’re minimizing their situation. They definitely don’t feel okay, nor are they actually sure that statement is actually true. It comes off as not being empathetic to the fact that they are scared for their actual life right now.
6. Act like their doctor
Don’t disagree with their treatment plan or give unsolicited advice. I had someone once tell me, “You need to tell your oncologist that you need this certain type of scan because it’s better.” On another occasion, I had someone else tell me that my doctors were wrong, that I wouldn’t need a hysterectomy. Before you say these types of things, take a step back to consider their perspective. You’re not the doctor, please don’t act like one. Leave the prognosis, diagnosis, and treatment to the professionals. Now, if you have questions, we are open to answering them. If you have heard of something that you feel might be helpful, simply provide the resource for the cancer patient to look into themselves. But please, don’t tell the cancer patient that their care is inaccurate or inadequate.
7. Minimize the hair loss
“It’s just hair, it will grow back” I cannot stress this enough. It’s NOT just hair. It can feel as though it’s part of their identity, a part of who they were before cancer, the last part of who they still wish they were. When a cancer patient still has their hair, they still look normal. After they lose their hair, they are branded with cancer. I go into much more depth on this subject and explain how very hard the hair loss was for me in my book A Cancer Made Mess, found here.
8. Tell them that their journey isn't as bad as...
Don’t compare their story to someone else’s. I once had someone tell me “You thought yours was bad…this lady can’t even have sex now.” Not only was it an insult that made me feel as though she thought I was a complainer from the very little I had shared with her, but it also made me feel as though she was belittling my own journey. She may have meant it in a positive way however, on the receiving end, it wasn’t.
Now you know some things NOT to say, let’s talk about how to actually talk to a cancer patient here.
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