What to Say (and Not Say) to Someone With Cancer


One of my best friend‘s dad died just before Christmas. She called, and I met her at the hospital almost instantly. It was the same emergency room I went to to say goodbye to my mom. Not only had I been in her shoes, but I grew up with this family. They are family. The thing is — I still didn’t know what to say. I know, from experience, that they will likely not remember what I did or didn’t say, but that night, in raw shock and grief, my friend looked to me for some guidance. “What do I do now?” she asked.

At their house, at the funeral, over the phone, and even now, I struggled to find the words. I settled with a hug and different variations of “I’m so sorry” and “I love you,” knowing there are no right words.

When I was diagnosed with cancer in April, I saw this same struggle come over people. They didn’t know what to say to me. And with every hurdle I faced, there was a new crop of solemnity in the eyes of those surrounding me. People just didn’t know what to say.

Truthfully, there’s almost nothing worse than silence, but in the case that someone said “the wrong thing,” it never really bothered me. I’m not easily offended, and I realize the difficulty of the situation. I understand that saying anything at all is akin to saying, “Hey, I care,” so I honestly appreciated everything anyone said to me. You guys really pulled me through with love and grace.

With a few exceptions.

There are really some things you just shouldn’t say to someone with cancer, and I’m here to help. (If you said any of these things to me, don’t worry, we’re cool. Just, you know, maybe hold it back next time you’re trying to think of something to say in the face of something as awful as cancer.) It’s a short list (only two things), but here we go.

“But you could get hit by a car tomorrow.”

No. Just no. My husband actually said this to me the other day when I was talking about my fear of dying from this horrible, awful disease (which spawned this whole post!), but he’s not the only person who has used this line.

The problem? It dismisses the fear. The valid, legitimate fear that cancer does and can kill.

Also, do you see a car trailing behind me? Because I actually have mutinous, killer cancer cells in my body trying to take me down. Until there’s a car gunning for me full-speed, just no. It’s not the same thing.

“My aunt/sister/boss/mom died of breast cancer.”

Oh, how nice. Let’s talk about how slow and painful it was, too.

The only time you should say this to someone is if they’re your mortal enemy. Like, if you hate someone — really hate someone — and they are diagnosed with cancer, then you could probably give them a whole list of people you knew who died of that type of cancer and consider yourself one up. In that case, however, you are a ginormous ass.

Honestly, when anyone said this to me, I knew they were just trying to relate with me. I knew they were *trying* to say, “Hey, I’ve seen breast cancer, and I understand. I know it’s tough, I know it’s scary, and I know what you’re facing in the days ahead.”

But you really should just hold that little nugget inside unless you want to make my day worse. Because it always did. Hearing of someone who died of breast cancer, especially in the early days of diagnosis, was panic inducing. I can handle it much better now, but let’s be honest, I am now also taking anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds at bedtime. So bring it on; I’m covered! Just kidding. I still don’t like to hear about it.

On the flip side, if you know of someone who was diagnosed with breast cancer and is, like, 20 plus years out, feel free to mention that. Those stories I welcomed with warm hugs. But don’t expect me to go too crazy. In 20 years, I’ll only be 53.

There are also things that people wouldn’t say that I wished someone would have.

Like, “Wow, Heather, you look like shit. Chemo must be a real bitch.”

Everyone was so quick to say how good I looked, considering (and they usually left off the “considering” part). Now, I know darn well that I didn’t look good — bags under my eyelash-free eyes, a bald head and a partial grimace on my face — and I didn’t feel good. I also know that people were just trying to throw me a bone, but if someone would have just conceded that I looked pretty awful, I would have been all like, “I know, right? Thank you! I feel pretty awful, and this cancer is really taking me down a notch.” Validation.

Be careful with this one, though. First, I’m not sure that every cancer patient feels the same way, and second, not just anyone can get away with it. There are definite rules.

If it looks like I tried at all to throw myself together, wait until next time. Signs that I tried to put myself together whilst in chemo: a wig, anything other than pajama pants, chapstick.

Also, you must be in the inner circle to say it. I figure there are about 25 people in my life who I would have welcomed such a comment from. Brothers, cousins, best friends. You should know if you’re in someone’s inner circle. If you’re not sure, just don’t. When I went back to work, someone once commented on my weight. Not cool. If you aren’t in the inner circle, keep the compliments flowing. My self esteem has just taken a huge hit.

If my brother/cousin/best friend had walked through the door, dinner in hand, and said, “Damn, Heather, you look like hell. How you feeling?” I would have laughed and loved it because someone has to keep it real. It gets pretty old hearing how great you look bald and how lucky you are not to have a misshapen head when all you want is your long, lovely, feminine hair back.

Keeping it real is what I craved a lot of the time. Which is why I often enjoyed the company of children. They don’t always know not to keep it real. My friend’s son showed no signs of hesitation at commenting on my bald head with a “Why aren’t you wearing your wig?” My niece, Abbi, is one of the only people who talked with me about the possibility of my death, and she’s 7.

She spent the night at our house mid-chemo, and upon seeing my bald head for the first time, I saw her thoughtful face, and said, “The medicine I take made it fall out, but it will grow back.”

“I know. My dad told me,” she said and sat for a moment, never looking away from me. “I know that you could die from cancer.”

“Yes, I could. I really could… but I don’t think I will.”

“Me neither.”

I can’t tell you how good that exchange was for my soul. Someone said it. Someone finally said it. My doctor never even said it. She gave me odds, numbers, but no one says things like, “You could die,” even though it’s true. And it’s so good to hear someone else say what you know and everyone else wants to gloss over.

Just don’t say nothing. Don’t drop out of someone’s life because you don’t know what to say or how to approach them. Because that is the very worst. Truly, with the exception of the aforementioned phrases, there are no wrong words. As long as you approach someone with love, they feel it. And if you really are at a loss for what to say, just remember not to be afraid of whatever it is that is going on. No one once reminded me that I had cancer; it never left my mind. No one made my day worse simply by bringing it up; I always appreciated the support. If words still fail you, go in for the hug and mean business.

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This post originally appeared on Invasive Duct Tales.

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