WHAT NOT TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS CANCER
I must preface this blog post by reminding you that every single person that goes through cancer deals with it in their own way. Some are more positive, some remain in denial, some break down and can’t function, some feel isolated, some feel completely loved and supported. All are ok and completely valid. These emotions can and will fluctuate and we may feel every single one of them, sometimes all within a day.
There is one consistency between everyone who is dealing with cancer...
We ALL have triggers.It’s fucking hard and you never know what’s going to trigger you at any given moment but guaranteed something is going to do it.
This is what you (the loved one trying to show support) need to keep in mind when you are conversing with someone going through cancer. You do not know their triggers, so coming from a place that is gentle and understanding is crucial. It may need to be conscious in the moment, but do what it takes as it’s extremely important.
You really need to ‘read the room’. Most people just want to be heard, not given advice. They want understanding and empathy; they may not want a positive spin on everything. Yet some might. They need their feelings and emotions validated yet there is no rulebook on how to best do this with any given individual based on the needs in that specific moment in time.
I have been on both sides of this. I know what its like to desperately want to support someone going through this with every ounce of your being. You don’t know what to say or do, but my god you want to help! But mainly, you want that help to be received; you want them to feel your love and support. You don’t want to cause them unintentional pain and this is often what happens yet doesn’t get spoken about. It causes huge cracks in relationships that deepen over time.
The examples I have given below are through my own personal experience and from all of the people I have conversed with who have gone through cancer in their own way. They will not all apply to everyone and you must use your own judgment when it comes to choosing the right way to speak to your loved one.
Let’s get into it.
“I know someone who had cancer, they are dead now but...”
It’s surprising how often people share stories like this. I honestly think this comes from people not knowing what to say and speaking for the sake of speaking in an uncomfortable time. Either that or they are trying to show you they understand what cancer is like but have lost sight about how this will make you feel.
“NOTHING”- Do not say anything even close to this. We do NOT need to hear stories like this when we are using up every last ounce of our energy trying to remain positive. Please don’t take that away from us with stories that instil more fear. We are already riddled with fear, this can be VERY triggering. Best to completely avoid these kind of statements all together.
“Let me know if there is anything I can do to help”
This is a difficult one as it’s BY FAR the most common and is no doubt SO well intended. Please know we truly understand this! In fact I’m sure I’ve said this to people over the years so I completely understand both sides of this statement.
To get you into the headspace of the person who has cancer more, just know that we have SO MUCH going on and that we are constantly processing the situation and our evolving feelings. Our minds are completely overwhelmed, our emotions are all over the place and our needs can and do change in an instant.
We have never felt this way before so even attempting to understand our own needs at any given moment is a challenge. Let alone reaching out to someone (when every single person you know has offered) to articulate exactly what we need, it all feels impossible and too much it can bring on added anxiety and stress. Often then we don’t ask and in turn struggle even more. We can feel more isolated yet we are surrounded by people who want to help.
Whilst we know your words are kind and it’s all you know in the moment to say, it can be extremely triggering to hear on repeat. Trust me, this is the one that we hear the most. Sometimes it can feel as though your words are bringing more comfort to YOU than to us. We end up trying to make YOU feel more comfortable in the moment and in turn completely disregarding our own needs and feelings which really need to be priority.
Just know actions truly speak louder than words here. There are so many things you can do to help that will be well received if you do them without being asked.
Meals, grocery drop off, driving us to appts, helping babysit (only people the kids are comfortable with), mowing lawns, and the list goes on.
“I’m here to help, I’m going to cook you a few meals this week and drop them off with no intention of staying. What are your dietary requirements so I can make sure I’m working in with what you’re eating”
“Are you going to lose your hair? Don’t worry it's just hair it will grow back”
This is completely de-validating someone’s feelings and depriving them of the right to grieve the loss of their hair. Again, well intentioned as you are trying to help them focus on the positives in the situation but it falls into the toxic positivity category and you need to tread VERY carefully.
Losing hair can be a HUGE hurdle for a lot of women and some men. It becomes a part of our identity and cancer robs that from us amongst many other things. (See my blog post here about how I feel about what cancer robbed me of)
Some have even gone as far as saying it was harder to accept than the diagnosis itself. Everyone’s experience is individual and all are valid.
“I’ve tried to imagine how confronting it must be to lose your hair, it’s no doubt incredibly hard for you. I’m here if you want to talk about it or have a cry”
“Awkward silence...says nothing”
People don’t know what to say. Even acknowledging THAT is better than silence or ignoring the elephant in the room. Just be mindful of not making it about you and how YOU are feeling, this can make things even worse. Trust me, this is a huge no-no.
There can be so much comfort in people acknowledging how shit this situation is and not saying anything else.
“I’m truly lost for words and don’t know what to say, this is shit. I’m here for you"
“At least you’re still alive, you should be grateful”
“NOTHING” Do not even go down this rabbit hole. We know all too well how grateful we are for being here. But generally we are not grateful to be in this situation and having someone who has no idea what it’s like tell us to be grateful feels extremely insensitive and is very hurtful. Any sentence that starts with ‘at least’ is not going to end well. Avoid this at all costs.
“You're strong, you’re a fighter, you’re going to get through this”
Even if the person is perceived as ‘strong’. They may not feel it and they would probably give up everything to not have to be strong in this moment. Having to be strong all of the time is a huge weight to carry. Having to be strong for your partner, children and loved ones feels heavy. You need time to fall to pieces and this is healthy and necessary.
Sometimes we don’t want to fight, we just want to curl up in the foetal position and give up on it all. But we HAVE to pick ourselves back up if we want to move forward; it feels like we don’t have a choice.
When we hear this on repeat it can be damaging, it almost makes you feel weak in that moment that you aren’t being as ‘strong’ as the word implies.
“I’ve no doubt with your incredible strength and resilience you will give this everything you have. But I want you to know I’m here to hold you in the moments where you don’t have the strength to hold yourself”
“Oh you’re lucky, you have a good cancer”
All cancer is fucked...period. Please do not make them feel bad by comparison.
“I’m so sorry you are going through this”
“My mums, cousins best friend had cancer 8 years ago, she was fine, I’m sure it will work out fine for you too. Stay positive”
Comparisons really don’t help much. Sometimes even positive ones. Until you are in this space you don’t understand how many different kinds of cancer there are and how each situation is so unique from anyone else’s. No 2 stories are relatable. Some stories can be uplifting to hear, but it very much depends on your mood, individual story itself and the way in which it’s told.
Also please don’t tell me to stay positive; it’s taking all of my energy just being present in this conversation with you right now without breaking down. This can be very triggering.
“I imagine this is such a confronting time for you with so many unknowns, it must be incredibly hard to navigate through. I’m here if you ever want or need to talk about this, or anything else. I’ll check in with you, but don’t feel the need to reply if the time isn’t right for you”
“Have you tried... (An abundance of alternative things that have cured cancer)”
Everyone has heard of an alternative thing, cancer is SO personal. Each type of cancer responds to different things. There is no one size fits all with mainstream or alternative treatments and therapies. Just keep this in mind and keep your approach gentle if you must share the alternative thing that you really feel could help. I understand wanting to share information like this as I’m quite passionate about it, but it’s all about the approach. Don’t act as though you KNOW when no one truly does on these topics.
“I can imagine exploring the many options of treatment out there can be so daunting and incredibly scary. Making these huge decisions must be so difficult. I don’t understand the specifics of your type of cancer but if you ever want to chat about it all I’m here. I’ve heard some amazing stories about some alternative treatments I’d happily discuss with you if you ever want to”
“Yeah, I know how you feel”
Even if a loved one has been through cancer, you truly don’t know what it’s like.
“I truly have no idea what you’re going through no matter how many blogs and articles I read about it. My heart breaks for you even imagining and I want to support you as best I can.”
“At least you don’t need chemo”
Chemo is what people identify with as the biggest struggle with cancer. It’s a part of it but certainly not all. The emotional side of cancer (the seeminly invisible side) to me is the hugest part. Chemo is no doubt extremely challenging, but far from the worst that cancer brings into your life in my opinion.
“I’ve heard chemo is extremely challenging, it must feel like a weight off that you don’t have to have it. Though I’ve no doubt there are an abundance of other challenges you’re still facing. I’m here to listen if you ever want to talk about them.“
“But you look so healthy”
Thank you, but unfortunately I have these rapidly dividing cells that are trying to kill me on the inside.
“I can imagine you’re probably not feeling great, I’d love to book you in for a massage sometime if you’re open to it, would next week work?”
“Everything happens for a reason though..”
While this is some people’s mentality, It’s certainly not everyone’s. Even if you believed this notion pre cancer, when you’re in this situation it can shake all of your pre-existing belief systems. This can be extremely hard for people to hear and accept. We don’t know why we got cancer yet it’s often one of the biggest questions we struggle with.
“It must be hard to understand why this has happened to you. I’m here to listen if you ever want to chat it through”
“At least you’re getting new boobs!”
Getting breast implants may be good for some people, but not having the choice around it makes you feel differently towards it.
Having a double mastectomy often means people lose their nipples and all feeling in their breasts.
This can mean not only grieving your actual breasts, but the ability to breastfeed, feeling your child as you pull them onto your chest, sexual pleasure and the list goes on.
From what I have heard it is meant to be an extremely challenging process and very difficult to navigate through emotionally. Again, trying to put a positive spin on it can be damaging sometimes when generally people have not tried to imagine or sit with the potential heartbreak this can cause.
“I can’t even imagine what it’s like to lose your breasts despite reading articles about it, truly it must be so challenging. I hope you’re going ok, please know I’m here if you ever want to chat or cry about it.”
“At least you already have your daughter/son”
Oh this one can be so incredibly damaging. So many people cannot have children post cancer for various reasons such as removed organs or as a result of drugs. When it feels like you have no choice, and acting fast is critical, it can be very hard to accept, as you don’t have time to fully process it.
This grief can be HUGE and is a topic that is better avoided unless brought up by your loved one going through this. Just listen and empathise. They need to grieve the loss of the life they thought they were going to have. It’s a huge challenge regardless if they already have a child/children or if they don’t. Tread very carefully here.
I hope this has helped in some way. My opinion is if you don’t know what it’s like going through cancer, read blog posts, follow pages, there are so many ways you can try to understand. With more understanding comes a support that will actually reach them and make them feel loved which is ultimately what we're all striving for even when we say things like these.
Don’t forget you can always just ask them what the experience is like for them. Just make sure when they speak, you listen wholeheartedly.
And remember; if in doubt just say something along the lines of this…
“This is fucked. I’m sorry you’re in this situation. I don’t know what to say other than I’m here with you. Here to hold your hand, hold space for you and to truly listen”