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What Not To Say When Talking About Cancer
5 well-meaning phrases you shouldnít say to someone with cancer.


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Even with the best intentions, some things are better left unsaid.


Pains are not comparable. They just arenít. The last thing someone fighting through their own cancer battle needs to hear is about how it could be worse.”
The room was green, I remember that much. That moment should be more memorable; it changed my life after all. Instead, that memory on the operating table has been lost in the haze of the passing years (and whatever they give you in that oxygen mask to make you feel so freaking loopy right before surgery). When I woke, I had a new reality. The tumor the doctors had removed from my leg wasnít a benign nerve tumor. It wasnít a fatty cyst. It was cancer.

NowóI remember that moment.

That was 10.5 years ago. Since my surgery, Iíve gone from sarcoma patient to sarcoma survivor (high five!) and Iíve used the disease to inspire me to pursue writing as a career. As a "long term survivor" I now have the opportunity to support others going through this terrible disease and to give hope of recovery.

Over the years working with these other fighters, survivors, and caregivers Iíve heard a lot of discussions on "what not to say to someone with cancer." Some of these items are ridiculously obvious and some are just hurtful but Iíve always been struck by five phrases that are meant to be comforting but end up being anything but. Here they are:

1. "You are going to be okay."

It seems like the right thing to say, it is what you really wish will happen for your friend or family member, but it also downplays the fact that this is a serious battle, one that might end up taking the fighterís life.

Instead: It is okay to acknowledge that your loved one might lose this battle. It is okay to say, "Iím scared" (this is best followed up with a giant hug). You canít promise "okay" so try to promise to "be there" instead.

2. "Look on the bright side, itís not (fill in the blank with other horrible illness)."

Pains are not comparable. They just arenít. The last thing someone fighting through their own cancer battle needs to hear is about how it could be worse. It immediately discounts any pain they are going through because at least itís not as bad as XYZ.

Instead: Try acknowledging how hard the road ahead is. It seems counter-intuitive, but honestly it is far more comforting.

3. "You got this!!" or "You are going to beat this!"

I know this one is particularly hard for cancer fighters to hear. Not because we donít want to be strong, but because the outcome of this battle is not really in our hands. Otherwise, wouldnít every cancer patient end up healed if all it took was determination and tenacity?

Instead: Ask about their treatment plan. Discuss ways you can support them during this time, or even better, how you can support their family. If they want to talk about the possibility of not "beating this"ólet them. One of the most beautiful discussions Iíve ever had was when a good friend asked me, "SoÖ what if you donít beat this? What can I do to help you and your family?"

4. "Let me know what you needÖ"

No. Nope. Nada. This phrase should be eliminated from the human lexicon. When going through a trauma, you are usually the last person who can see what you need. In fact, it is often exhausting to come up with a way someone can help.

Instead: Be active. Offer specific help and if your friend says "no" then find a way to take a load off without asking permission. Shovel a driveway or pick up a kid from school. You know what one of my favorite things anyone ever did for me when I was sick? Took me to my appointments so I didnít have to go alone.

5. "Everything happens for a reasonÖ"

Maybe you actually believe this and thatís okay, but please donít say it to someone diagnosed with cancer (or going through anything hard, really). That phrase and all the other similar sentiments are hardly comforting to most of the cancer fighters Iíve come to know and love. It makes you feel like you lost the life lottery, like you pulled the short straw, like no one out there (or up there) cares about your life and apparently you should be okay with that.

Instead: You can say, "This sucks." Even if you somehow believe that cancer happens "for a reason" you can also acknowledge how incredibly sucky it is. So so sucky.

Sometimes after reading a list like this it can feel impossible to find the right thing to say to someone battling a life-threatening illness, but I really think it comes down to two things. First, acknowledge how hard, painful and unfair the battle is. Second, offer love and specific support. Thatís it. You can't make it better and your well-meaning sentiments canít make it better. The only words that actually help are, "I'm so sorry", "I love you", "That is so scary/hard" and "I will hold your hand the whole way."

Iím a mom of four, an author and Chicagoland native. My first novel, "WRECKAGE," was released by Lake Union Publishing March 2015. My second book, "WHEN IíM GONE," will hit shelves March 2016. Please visit emilybleeker.com for more.†Iím†learning to balance life as a stay-at-home mom with my life as a writer. Both come with a lot of laughter, tears and a shocking amount of Diet Coke.


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