What not to say to a cancer patient (and what to say instead)

by Team Onco
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Very often, when we come across someone with a serious illness like cancer, we tend to offer positive advice.

“Don’t worry. You will get better.”

“You will be fine soon.”

“You can overcome this.”

“You have to fight and win.”

These are some of the lines we tend to say, as an effort to give hope and courage to the cancer patient. 

Positive advice usually works in the short run. However, if the patient has been or is likely to be sick for a longer period of time, the positive advice may sound false to them. 

We spoke to some of the cancer patients and survivors from our own community.They shared the most annoying comments they received during and after their cancer treatment. 

In this article, we go through what you can avoid saying to a cancer patient, and provide some options for alternative things to say, so that the conversation need not stop. 

what to say to a cancer patient

The first thing we tend to do when we meet a cancer patient after a long time is comment on their weight. Cancer patients are often sensitive about the physical changes they go through during cancer treatment. Weight loss or gain is common with cancer. 

Instead of drawing attention to what they are already worried about, try to steer the conversation away from how much their body has changed. 

You could try talking about other things that they are less likely to be sensitive about. It is also good to let them know that you like visiting them, so they can feel loved and cared for. 

  • Don’t say “I know someone else who has cancer ….”

    Say: Is there anything you want me to do? Do you want me to bring you anything?

It’s natural for us to mention someone else who has or had cancer. Narrating what happened to them, or how their treatment went, may not be the best thing to do in this circumstance.

Hearing about the difficulties faced by others with cancer can make any cancer patient anxious. As they are already likely to be worried, increasing their stress and anxiety levels is not desirable at all. 

You can steer the conversation to what they may need at this point. Maybe there are some errands to run, or maybe they need someone to drive them to doctor’s appointments. 

They might be some simple tasks they need help with, and which you can easily help them with. 

helping a cancer patient

  • Don’t say “You have the ‘good’ type of cancer.”

    Say: “Do you want to talk about your treatment, or about other things?”

There is this notion that some cancers are ‘good’ when compared to other cancers. The cure rate for some cancers like breast cancer, prostate cancer etc in the early stages can be better than for other types of cancers. For this reason, people call them ‘good’ cancers. 

You may mean it in a positive way, but the patient may not always like to hear that the pain they are going through is ‘good’ in any way. It may seem like you are trivialising or making light of what they are going through. 

Often, you will need to ask if the patient is willing to talk about their cancer, how they are feeling etc. Take their cue on this before asking further questions. 

  • Don’t say “What is the cause of this cancer?”

    Say: “Are there any specific foods you are able to eat well?”

For most cancers, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. Moreover, talking about the cause can make the patient feel guilty about their lifestyle choices like smoking. This is unhelpful at a time when they are trying to stay positive and fight cancer. 

Instead of talking about what could have been done in the past, you could try talking about what can be done now to make the cancer journey a little bit easier. 

If there are any specific activities they enjoy, you could try and help them with those. For example, if they enjoy reading, you could offer to bring them magazines and books. Or if they enjoy certain types of foods like smoothies or ice lollies, you can make those for them. 

gift foods to cancer patients and their caregivers

  • Don’t say “Have you tried this other medicine?”

        Say: “If you feel your treatment is not working, get a second opinion. Then you can be sure that you are on the right treatment path.” 

Some visitors have a tendency to suggest certain alternative medicines that are not backed by scientific research. They may also offer anecdotal evidence they have heard about someone else being cured by trying a certain oil or herb. These usually do not work and put the patient’s family under unnecessary pressure to try out different ‘cures’.

It could be a similar situation with suggesting visits to religious places, or spiritual gurus. Chances are that the patient has already considered similar options. Suggesting too many opposing ideas may confuse the patient and make them more anxious if they are unable to carry out these suggestions. 

Talking very negatively about their present treatment can make them anxious. If the patient expresses concerns about the effectiveness of the present treatment, you could suggest a second opinion, which is a scientific way to validate their treatment. 

  • Don’t say “Just be positive.” 

        Say: Do you want to watch a movie or go for a drive?

This piece of advice can be easier to give than receive. When you are going through a life-threatening disease, it is not easy to stay positive all the time. And that’s ok. 

The patient is allowed to feel anxious or worried from time to time as it is a very natural response to the situation. 

Instead of telling them to stay positive, you can try and distract them away from their anxiety using activities that may interest them. 

For example, you can take them for a drive around the neighbourhood, or send them movies they can watch. 

Such tasks could be  a relief from their daily schedule. But remember to always check if they feel ready for it. Cancer patients can get very tired suddenly and when this happens, it is best to reschedule the activity. 

Also, remember to pick light-hearted movies or books rather than something that can be emotionally draining. 

what to say to a friend with cancer

Good on you for trying!

You care for your friend or family member with cancer. Your efforts to say the right things shows that you do. 

Not all of our efforts will have positive results. Sometimes, we will still end up saying things that annoy them. 

Instead of trying to make every visit or conversation perfect, pat yourself on the back for trying. 

Although cancer treatment tends to make people irritable and tired, many patients enjoy knowing that their loved ones are still there for them. So keep in touch with your loved one with cancer, even if it feels like you are not finding the right things to say. 

Even saying “I don’t know what to say” can be an honest way of sharing how you feel. 

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