What to say/what not to say to someone with cancer … 7 characters in search of a T-shirt!

Most cancer blogs seem to have posts devoted to the topic of the things that people say to people with cancer.  I’ve come across some brilliant posts that made me laugh and groan because they made me realise that dealing with uncomfortable reactions and comments, is alas, an occupational hazard for every cancer patient.

I’ve written my own variations on “what to say … what not to say”:



Those two posts were a long list of “don’ts” written with the cancer patient on the indignant moral high ground, and must have made readers feel that they have to tip-toe around the cancer patient for fear of saying the wrong thing, or that cancer patients have no sense of humour!


Typical response to “I’ve got cancer”

The fact is: cancer seems to inspire foot-in-mouth disease-type responses.  At the end of the day, we’re all imperfect.  The words “sorry if what I said upset you” go a long way to patching things up, and people on the cancer journey are really very grateful for (and need) all the support (and kind words) we get.

Here is a summary of the posts (with a lighter touch) of some of the characters I’ve met, in response to “I’ve got cancer”.  (I’m tempted to get these made up into T-shirts!)


The Chemo Saint. Never sick, never lost her hair, ran a marathon, worked through chemo

1.  The Chemo Saint

It’s meant to be reassuring, but we’ve all been told of the person who sailed through chemotherapy.  She/he was never sick, never lost her hair, ran a fund-raising marathon every day, and worked through all 36 cycles of chemotherapy!  I call her the Chemo Saint.  The fact is, chemotherapy is a very individual thing – people have different types of chemo, and different reactions.  We all hope and pray we sail through it, but the reality is, it’s a grim treatment.  There is a tendency to want to romanticise cancer treatments because they’re so awful and in the real world, no one would volunteer for them.  It’s nice to have reassurance, but on the other hand, it may make the cancer patient feel inferior if she doesn’t sail through chemotherapy.  Please leave the Chemo Saint in the cupboard where she belongs!



The Cancer War Story teller: Oh yes, my aunt and two sisters had the same type of cancer … they died.

2.  The Cancer War Story Teller

I don’t know why, but cancer more than any other illness seems to bring out the need in people to swap war stories of the worse kind.  After all, no one says things like: “oh, she had diabetes and got gangrene and lost all her fingers and toes and went blind and then died!” [even though this is sometimes the reality with advanced diabetes].

With cancer, suddenly out of the woodwork, everyone has a friend/sister/great-aunt/dog/cat who had cancer, and they all suffered and died.

Maybe it’s because we’ve been told that there’s a “War Against Cancer”.  I think there is a need for people to want to empathise, to show they share a common enemy in this “War Against Cancer” and that “We’re In It Together, Gurl”.  But the difference is like someone whose experience of war is playing Call of Duty vs an infantry soldier dodging bullets on the frontline.  Telling war stories does not offer hope, and actually makes things worse.  So hold off your World War Cancer stories!


The Voice of God: God doesn’t give anything to people who can’t cope with it … there’s a reason you got cancer.

3.  The Voice of God

This is the well-meaning person who says things like:  “God doesn’t give anything to people who can’t cope with it” or “There’s a reason you got cancer”.  I call them the Voice of God because they seem to have a direct channel to God, and deliver their words with the authority of a God.  I usually back away from these people because they are deluded and dangerous and their words only succeed in making the cancer patient feel worse about themselves, and guilty about having cancer.


The Philosopher: So you’ve got cancer … but we’re all going to die someday, aren’t we?

4.  The Philosopher

One of my favourites.  This is the person who looks you soulfully in the eyes and says: “But we’re all going to die someday, aren’t we?”  What a brilliant observation.  But the speaker and the cancer patient are not on a level playing field – one person has cancer, the other doesn’t have cancer, so it’s patronising to assume that just because we are both going to end up dead, that we share a common experience.  Let’s put it this way:  yes, we are both sitting in boats on the Ocean of Life, but the cancer patient’s is marked “Titanic” and just that wee bit closer to the Iceberg.  The destination is the same, but the timeframe and process are grossly different.  Death is a little more real to the cancer patient, and not an abstraction.  I think the best answer to this is:  “yes, we’re all going to die some day … I’m going to let you go first”. [this brilliant riposte was left by a reader on Lisa Bonchek Adam’s blog – this post and its commments is the best I’ve come across so far on the topic of what to say/not to say]

[don’t kick yourself if you’ve used the “we’re all going to die” consolation – I’ve heard it from a homeopath, acupuncturist and energy healer who all didn’t have cancer and who, as trained therapists in the healing industry, should have known better]


The Cancer Expert (conventional): My sister had cancer so I’m now qualified to give you information on radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery.

5.  The Cancer Expert (Conventional Treatment)

Everyone has had a brush with cancer, often vicariously through a family member or friend.  Somehow, this allows them to morph into Captain Cancer Expert:  “my sister had cancer, I nursed her through it so I know everything to know about cancer” or “Don’t worry you’ll make it through chemo/surgery/radiotherapy” or “a mastectomy is the best way forward” usually delivered with the authority of someone who has spent 20 years acquiring board certification and the letters FRCS, FRCR and MD after their names.  Actually, some people welcome information and advice.  So take your lead from the cancer patient and only give her the information if she asks for it.


The cancer expert (non-standard): Have you tried raw veganism … sprouting … juicing … enemas … intranvenous Vitamin C?

6.  The Cancer Expert (Non-standard treatment)

“Just eat broccoli sprouts, are you juicing, what about coffee enemas?  My sister had cancer and juiced/became a raw vegan/danced naked around a fire at full moon, did affirmations daily, visualisations, meditation, yoga, QiGong, acupuncture, homeopathy and cured herself of cancer!”

This is the close relative to The Cancer Expert (Standard treatment) except that she’s an expert on all-treatments non-conventional.  Most cancer patients are desperate for a cure and willing to try anything, but don’t need people suggesting that their treatment choices are incorrect.  Respect the treatment choice that the cancer patient make, and don’t try to make them feel bad about it by offering information they don’t want or need.

7.  There are no Guarantees …

This is the person who, when you tell them that surgery/chemotherapy/radiotherapy sucks and still does not mean the cancer will not recur, offers the opinion:  “there are no guarantees in life” like some sort of Omnipotent Actuary in the Sky.  Since they’re not the ones going through cancer treatment, their smug cliches neither inspires hope, nor confidence in their support.   Like it’s supposed to make going through treatments easier on the cancer patient who’s living with 100% uncertainty?  The appropriate riposte is:  there are some guarantees in the world, like the sun rising and setting and the moon and the tides happening every day.

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