What NOT to say to someone who has cancer

There’s a lot on the internet on this topic already, so if you are really worried about saying the wrong thing you can read more than just this blog post. Some good places to start are here and here. A lot of this comes down to common sense and emotional intelligence. The things that have been the worst in my experience are almost laughable because they were so terrible– true moments of “WHO WOULD SAY THAT!!??,” things that anyone who was thinking about the words escaping their mouths would have stopped, or so I would hope.

1. Story about how this person’s mother died when this person was 10, after the mother had an illness. I was told that while, yes– that was sad– it actually wasn’t that bad because it made this person “more empathetic,” and also this person’s remaining parent re-married.

It took me a while to figure out the impact of this story, and what the proper response should have been… at the time I was too shocked to really know what to do. I think I nodded and gave this person some sympathy on losing a parent at such a young age, all the while we both knew this person had been 2 years older than my oldest is now.

And then, after enough time had passed for me to be able to put my feelings into words– that this story was not at all helpful for me to hear, and I was looking for other types of silver linings to the crap that is going on in my life — well, by that time it just felt like giving feedback would have been socially inappropriate.

Lesson Learned: You don’t need to share any other terrible experiences with someone who has cancer. Don’t try to make it seem like good things always come from shit. Just don’t.

2. Someone telling me about their health issues, and then saying to me, “Well, at least my kids are old enough to remember me if I die. How old are your kids?”… “Oh.. yeah, my kids are much older. They’ll definitely remember me… Oh, am I making you feel badly? I don’t want to make you feel bad.”

So… maybe I am over sensitive about dying and leaving my children without a mother, but WTF are people thinking saying this sort of thing? My in-the-moment response was telling this person that, “No, this conversation is fine, not making me feel bad.” And– at the time, it didn’t make me feel bad– just more determined to build a shit ton of memories with my kids. At least this person had a sense that maybe what was being said was not the right thing, so all hope is not lost. And granted, this person was worried about health problems, so maybe death and all the implications of that were swirling front and center in their thoughts… but still! Don’t imply that someone’s kids WON’T REMEMBER THEM.

Lesson Learned: If you are going through something stressful in your life it is OK to share. But do not draw comparisons between your struggles and someone else’s with cancer. Even if you both have cancer. Share, don’t compare.

Lesson I would have hoped we didn’t need to learn, but it appears needs to be said: As stated above– don’t imply someone’s kids are too young to remember them. Even if the child is 2 months old. Don’t say it.

My kids and I making memories with silly faces

3. Someone telling me “in the little time you have left I see you want to do XYZ”

In this case, I interrupted this person and told them that I hoped to have more than “a little time left.” I mean… come on… That’s clearly not the right thing to say.

Lesson Learned: How about just avoiding talking about having “a little time left” unless the cancer patient is actively dying. And even then, you probably shouldn’t say it. I’m all for having honest conversations about end of life goals, not sugar-coating things– but unless you are a member of the medical or hospice teams, or the patient’s family, you shouldn’t quantify the time. Just make it quality time.

4.Someone I haven’t seen in a while, asking me right away– “Are you still on chemo? Are you still getting MRIs?” No, ‘Hi, nice to see you…,” just BOOM. Into the details– that maybe I don’t want to share.

Lesson Learned: Even if you are really curious about what’s going on, how about saying “Hi!” before launching your fact-finding mission? You can then try to gauge how much your cancer patient friend wants to share. It may not be a lot, or it could be a complete update, that is not up to you. Just be available to listen. Some people recommend not even asking “how are you?,” because even THIS can sometimes be too probing. I think “how are you?” is fine– the person can be as vague or as detailed as they want when they answer– but let them pick.

If I wrote about every situation where someone said something they shouldn’t have, this post would go on forever. While these four examples were probably my most memorable moments of having someone say something totally wrong, there are so many other things that could potentially make me cringe, depending on how sensitive I’m feeling at that exact moment. But, I’ve realized THIS is universal– everyone has sensitivities that are invisible, and you may say something that hits that sore spot without knowing it even existed. For example, I once said I got pregnant very quickly when my husband and I started trying — not realizing that there was someone in the room worried about infertility. How insensitive was I?! But I didn’t know. No one always says the right thing– but thinking about how your words might be interpreted is the first step in saying things that don’t make you sound like an ass.

I know that I have a lot more sore spots than I used to. My inner dialogue has so many more responses than before to seemingly benign conversations. For example, if someone complains to me about their work schedule, rather than be able to commiserate or problem solve like I used to, all I can think is, “you are so lucky to be able to work! I wish I was working too!” Or, if someone talks about their retirement accounts, worried they won’t have enough saved come age 65 or whatever– rather than be able to imagine my retirement, or plan for that in any way, I’m flooded with a string of statistics that are now tattooed in my mind that show me it’s unlikely I’ll ever be 65 at all.

These things are all in MY head– I know. I’m not saying that if you know someone with cancer (or even me!) you should never complain about work or talk about retirement. But, as my perspective has changed so much, and is still changing, I know there isn’t one perfect list of what TO SAY or what NOT TO SAY. The truth is that on different days I’d turn all of these examples into brain cancer jokes and move on without a second thought. But occasionally it’s just not as easy.

Sometimes I think — ok, well I just need to develop thicker skin. I don’t want to be sensitive to EVERYTHING. What a whiney baby. But on the other hand, I think it is helpful for me to think about what are my “trigger points” and why? — be able to identify the source of my feelings to better understand why sometimes my reactions can be so different from day to day. That’s part of why I do this blog; it helps me answer some of these questions that otherwise I wouldn’t spend as much time on.

Bottom line: Talking to people who have cancer is not that different from talking to everyone else. Try to be nice. Listen. Try to understand there are different perspectives, and some may be a little rough or sensitive on some points. This doesn’t mean you need to be afraid to say anything, but just think about it a little. And, also– don’t imply that someone’s kids won’t remember them, or that their kids will be better off because of a parents death. Just don’t.

8 thoughts on “What NOT to say to someone who has cancer

  1. Naghmeh Moshtael

    could have not said it better my friend! great blog today. Eighteen years and counting, I still get “interesting” comments e.g. you are better doctor because of your cancer, are you still getting treatment, are you still have surveillance imaging, etc.
    I loved the last paragraph: “Talking to people who have cancer is not that different from talking to everyone else. Try to be nice. Listen. Try to understand there are different perspectives, and some may be a little rough or sensitive on some points. This doesn’t mean you need to be afraid to say anything, but just think about it a little. And, also– don’t imply that someone’s kids won’t remember them, or that their kids will be better off because of a parents death. Just don’t.”
    Thank you for saying it loud – some questions and comments simply not be asked or said loud.


  2. Lainy Fersh

    Once again Alex, you write and speak things that let me know how you’re doing and what you’re feeling. Thank you for your directness and honesty.

    Thinking of you often.


  3. Chelle

    Yikes…can’t believe some of the things people said to you. And also not going to lie I was nervous something I’ve said would be on there. 😦 Not anything specific but sometimes people don’t know what to say and think they are being helpful. Thank you for sharing this.


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