Breast cancer as a young woman and mother.

6 things NOT to say to someone with cancer (and what to say instead!)

In this article I am speaking on behalf of my fellow sisters in breast cancer. I interviewed a group of  patients and survivors of the disease to pinpoint the most common and frustrating things that have been said to them while in the trenches. I also dug a little deeper to find out more valuable ways to support them along the way. As a survivor of triple negative breast cancer I was able to contribute from my own experience as well.

It can be so difficult to know what to say to a friend or loved one that has been diagnosed with cancer. You want to show them empathy and compassion, but are unsure of the right words. They are going through something that is thankfully unthinkable to most people. So sometimes, even with the best of intentions, you might say something that feels insensitive or frustrating to them. 

Here are 6 things not to say to cancer patients, and some useful tips on what to say instead.

I want to preface this article by saying first and foremost please don’t ever pull away from your friend or loved one with cancer for fear of upsetting them. Saying something, even one of the things I touch on, is better than saying nothing at all.

1. “You’re lucky!”

Whether it’s because you think they have a “good” cancer, whatever that is, or because they are in remission, no one that has been diagnosed with cancer is lucky.

I had a completely healthy friend tell me I was lucky when I was in the depths of chemotherapy for a particularly aggressive breast cancer. I sat there in front of her, totally bald, every bone in my body aching, feeling like I’d been run over by a truck. Feeling anything but lucky. All I could do was nod quietly in shock. 

You don’t tell people that haven’t had cancer that they’re lucky to be alive and should be grateful no matter how sad or sick they’re feeling. So why is it OK to say that to someone that has experienced it? Spoiler alert, it’s not! 

What to say instead.

“This has been an awful time for you, I can see you’ve been through a lot. How are you feeling about it?”

If you want to support your friend or loved one during their cancer journey, you must validate what they are/have been going through. Asking how they are feeling about it opens the opportunity to let them talk and vent if they want to.

2. My *insert obscure relative* died of breast cancer.

I can safely say that most of the people I know that have had breast cancer have experienced this particular punch to the gut. I never knew how to respond to this or what the person saying it wanted to achieve. It still baffles me. As cancer patients and survivors, we very much KNOW that it can be deadly. We struggle with that reality every single day and don’t need reminding of the fact.

What to say instead.

Share stories of people you know that have survived and are thriving. Even if you don’t know anyone personally there are plenty of examples of celebrities that have survived breast cancer. Fill them with hope, not fear, or don’t say anything at all.

Kylie Minogue, breast cancer survivor.

3. “Advice” on what they should eat\not eat.

Even writing that down made me roll my eyes! If I had a penny for every time I got unsolicited “advice” about what I needed to do to supposedly cure my cancer, I’d be a millionaire.  I understand that in most cases there is a genuine desire to help. It comes from a place of caring, but in truth isn’t constructive. It’s extremely overwhelming to be bombarded with so much advice, especially when your head is already spinning. If I had listened to everyone that told me what to eat or not eat, I’d be surviving on a steady diet of kale and water. 

What to do instead.

Make them some nourishing home made meals. Treatment might be making them exhausted and weak. Chemotherapy will make them nauseous and cause mouth ulcers. Providing something healthy and comforting that they haven’t got to make themselves will encourage them to eat and keep their strength up. Think veggie packed soups, cottage pies, mashed potatoes, lasagnas and casseroles. 

4. “You’re so strong and inspiring.”

Cancer patients and survivors have absolutely no choice in what they are experiencing. They either do the treatment, or die. If they could run from it, they would in a heartbeat. Some days they will break down, cry and scream, and that is perfectly normal and healthy. 

Being labelled as “strong” simply for having it and going through the necessary motions, feels phoney. It adds pressure to actually be strong, and having people you know and love suddenly treating you so differently is a surprising kind of terrifying. 

What to say instead. 

Your friend or loved one with breast cancer is struggling with their identity. Depending on their stage and treatment, cancer has likely taken over their lives, their minds and their bodies. Tell them you are proud of them, but above all they need you to treat them exactly as before. Joke, talk about other things, invite them out to lunch and fun outings. Try not to handle them with kit gloves, and definitely don’t pity them. Lose the head tilt! They are still the same person you know and love, don’t make them think otherwise.

5. “I’ve always wanted to shave my head!”

This comment is of course supposed to make someone that’s having chemotherapy feel good about losing their hair. In reality it invalidates the trauma of it. There is a BIG difference between shaving your hair out of choice, and completely losing it from the follicles because you are being poisoned against your will. The loss of control that it represents is a significant part of it.

And never once did a person that said this to me actually shave their head! 

What to say instead.

Be genuinely curious. “It must be really hard to face losing your hair. What does it feel like?” Again, validation and listening to what your friend/loved one with cancer has to say will go a long way. 

6. “It’s over, now you can get back to normal.”

I wish it was possible to go back to normal afterwards, but sadly that is not the reality. Going through prolonged treatment changes you. It doesn’t define you, but it shapes you. They may well suffer with PTSD and a great fear of recurrence. They might look different and feel weak. They will have lost friends, gained new ones, and have a completely different outlook on life. 

Recovery is very far from over once treatment has finished. In fact that is when a lot of cancer patients feel especially lost and scared. 

What to say instead.

Make sure that they know you don’t expect them to bounce back right away. Gently encourage them to do the things that you know motivated and inspired them before cancer. Things that bring them joy. Offer a friendly, non judgemental ear, and keep the cancer conversations flowing if they want to talk about it. Trust me, it’s no way near as draining for you as it is for them. 

The take away.

If you have someone in your life with cancer and are reading this, you are already doing a great job of being loving and mindful of them. 

Understand that you can’t imagine what they are experiencing, as hard as you try. Unless you have had cancer and treatment yourself, there are countless physical and psychological complexities to it that are just impossible to comprehend. I had no idea before I went through it myself. It’s not a criticism, just a fact. And that fact makes it a potentially very isolating experience for your loved one. 

Toxic positivity, insensitive comments and unsolicited advice are a huge NO!

Validation and respect for what they have been/are going through, YES!

Patience, hearing what they need and how they feel, YES! 

Treating them like they are still that person you know and love, YES! 

If you are currently going through cancer and can relate to this article, share it with your support network. They will be relieved to get some guidance on how to help you best. 

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