What NOT to say to someone with cancer

Do you have a friend or loved one who has cancer and sometimes worry about saying the wrong thing?

I personally know a lot of people who felt intimidated by trying to say the right thing when they found out I had cancer. Most people are well-intentioned and will say things that they think are harmless or maybe even positive, when sometimes they aren’t. For this post, I have collaborated with other cancer fighters and survivors in giving our accounts of things that people said to us during treatment that we wish they didn’t. The reason I am doing this is to build bridges and remove the stigma and awkwardness that always follows when someone says “I have cancer”.

 

    1. At least you got the “good cancer”

Being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a lot of people, particularly in the medical field and even doctors, would say this to me and I understand where they are coming from. According to statistics, my cancer has a very high cure rate and I will most likely be cured after only a few months of chemotherapy. After relapsing, I most certainly did not feel like I had the “good cancer”. Even for those who don’t relapse after treatment, they will never be rid of the possibility of relapsing. Every check-up and every scan will be terrifying, wondering whether it’s back. So no, there is no such thing as a “good” cancer.

 

   2. Chemo kills! Have you tried alternative medicine?

Okay, this particular question bothers me and most cancer patients I’ve spoken to on SO many levels. PLEASE, do not suggest this to anyone fighting cancer. We do not want to hear about some magical fruit in Mexico that will kill the cancer cells raging inside our bodies. These articles and videos usually have the title “The cure for cancer doctors don’t want you to know”. Wow! They don’t even say which cancer. A magical diet that destroys ALL types of cancers.

The reason this particular phrase pushes my buttons is that the prospect of facing chemotherapy, radiation or surgery alone is absolutely terrifying to most people, but there are some people who would go to lengths to avoid treatment out of fear and would buy into any “alternative” crap out there. The problem with this is that there are no peer-reviewed studies that prove you can be cured of cancer using anything other than modern medicine and these people end up dying from a disease that they could have easily been treated for.

Instead of offering alternative medicine, suggest complementary medicine (but always with the approval of the doctor). Complementary medicine is used alongside (not instead of) modern medicine and can be used to help alleviate the side effects of cancer treatment.

 

    3. Why/how did you get this cancer? Do you eat a lot of junk food?

Asking this is basically insinuating that there was something they could have done to prevent it, which is not what one would want to hear when diagnosed with a life threatening disease. I understand the fact that cancer could happen to just about anyone is absolutely terrifying and we all would love to know just what causes it to be able to prevent it. So please, we understand that you are scared that you are just as vulnerable to this disease as we are; but that’s no reason to go asking cancer patients “why do you think you got it?” as though they know the reason and don’t want to share.

While we now know that some types of cancers are associated with certain risk factors, studies are still being undertaken to help prevent this disease. The fact is, there is no guaranteed way of life that protects you from cancer. For instance, although it is a known fact that smokers are at a much higher risk of developing lung cancer, but there are non-smokers who have also end up with lung cancer. The best you can do is live as healthy as possible by maintaining a well-balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise.

“Do you eat a lot of junk food?”   I was asked this after I was first diagnosed and I can’t stress on how wrong this is to say to someone just diagnosed with cancer. It is hurtful, offensive and flat out rude.

 

   4. You’ll be alright

There are two reasons why you shouldn’t say this. First, you don’t know that; so try not to assume they will and even worse, say it to them. Second, it sounds like you are downplaying a situation that you know very little about.

Instead, commend them on how brave they are for facing the illness the way they do or just show them love and support by simply saying “I’m here for you”. 

 

   5. Oh you’re done now? So you’re all good and back to normal? (Khalas serti min7a?)

Normal? What is normal? My life was turned upside down in the blink of an eye. My priorities have changed, I have changed. All my fears and dreams have changed. I speak for all cancer patients when I say this; I have no idea what normal is anymore, I need to find a new one.

What many people don’t realise is that, fighting cancer comes in two stages; first with the disease itself and then with the aftermath. Yes, I may have finished treatment, been declared cancer-free and look healthy enough, but I now have to deal with all the physical and emotional baggage that comes with cancer. Now that the war is over, I am left with physical scars (some of which may have maimed me) that I now have to find a new way to live with. Furthermore, I spent every last bit of my energy during treatment to fight off the side effects and be positive and happy to get me through it all and now that it’s over, my energy is being redirected to deal with the psychological aspect of what I’d been through.

The thing is, every cancer patient I’ve spoken to has told me that they, like myself, went through some form of depression after remission. This is often shocking to most people who expect us to be jumping for joy and moving on right away. Don’t get me wrong; we are over the moon about surviving cancer; but we are also left with all the pieces to put back together. It is very depressing to be stuck at home for months or, too sick to get on with your life while all your friends are out there finishing their degrees, getting jobs, partying and moving on.

When asked this question, we know it comes from the best of intentions, but it is very difficult to answer honestly. So instead, ask this: “How are you recovering?”

“Bokra bterja3/bterja3i mitil abel w ahsan” (You will get back to your normal self and even better): This is a very popular phrase that loved ones use in our Lebanese culture which is, of course, well intentioned; but like I explained above, saying this sets expectations in a way which are very difficult or even impossible to live up to which is why this phrase can be frustrating to hear.

 

   6. Stay positive

Honestly, this is something I have often said to other cancer fighters as well and the reason is that I personally believe that having an overall positive mindset will help a cancer patient get out of bed each morning and look forward to something, go to each treatment despite knowing how horrible it will make them feel and making the best of a bad situation. Being positive is what helped get me through.

However, I can relate to why saying this to someone with cancer can be negative. Saying “stay positive” implies you expect them to not feel sad or angry; it means that you shouldn’t cry because you have to be “positive” all the time and that is impossible to ask of anyone let alone a cancer patient. It is OKAY to be sad, to cry and to be angry.

Instead of asking us to stay positive, gently remind us of our own inner strength by asking us to “be strong”; because being strong means its OKAY to feel angry and cry, but then find the strength to get back up on your feet and fight. Find the strength to wake up each day and remind yourself of all the things you are fighting for. Find the strength to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you feel like giving up.

 

  7. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help

I, too have genuinely said this without realising how ineffective it is. Odds are, when you say “Is there something I can do to help?”, you will get an “I’m okay, thanks”. Instead, be specific.

If you know they are tired, ask:  “Can I get your groceries for you? Can I run errands? I would love to cook a meal for you this week, is there something specific you would like? Can I come to chemo with you?”  

 

  8. The pity look/”ya haraam” (What a shame/pity)

You will naturally feel bad for people who have to face cancer but do not give them the “I pity you look”; it is very offensive. It is one thing to feel bad for someone going through a rough time; it is another to pity them. There is absolutely no reason to feel pity for someone with cancer, because we are appreciating every good day and never taking anything for granted again. Cancer patients learn just how much crap they can tolerate and no longer have the limitations they once had.

In our Middle Eastern culture, “ya haram” is our go-to phrase when feeling sad or pity for someone. Before you say haram s/he has cancer, take a look at what they are facing day in and day out for months and instead, respect them for taking on so much crap and still managing a smile and good humour at the end of the day. Replace that feeling of pity for admiration.

 

   9. Say nothing

Cancer showed me who my true friends and family are. Then there were people who, shockingly, never reached out to me and were never there. For a long time, I was really upset with them. Later, a few of them came forward and apologised for not reaching out because they didn’t know what to say. 

Some people find it difficult to talk to a friend who has cancer because they feel awkward or are sometimes worried about saying the wrong thing. While it is completely understandable, be honest; tell your friend “I really don’t know what to say”.

It is far better to say that than to say nothing at all.

 

  10. Treating them differently 

After being diagnosed with a life-altering disease, we know that our lives will never be the same again and the last thing we need is to have our friends and loved ones also treat us differently. You might think Oh, I wouldn’t want to trouble them with my petty problems, they have too much on their plate. Please do! We want to feel normal and that nothing has changed and you still can share your problems with us.

Our lives now consist of going to the hospital, receiving treatment, feeling lousy and waiting until we feel good again for a few days before repeating the cycle. On those good days we rely on you for fun and helping us forget we have cancer. A friend of mine experienced disappointment regarding his expectations of his friends being available for the fun days: “One of the situations that disappointed me the most was my friends’ blindness towards my desperate need for fun! I won’t say for support, because they were present with me in difficult times. When I needed to go out and have fun, to laugh and forget the shit I was living they weren’t there; they turned me down, giving me plenty of excuses, fearing that something bad might happen to me and ultimately, though unintentionally, making me feel different. They didn’t care to protect me psychologically, only physically; ignoring my need to keep a strong state of mind.” ~ Anonymous


You may have read this and remembered saying some of these things to someone you know who has cancer. If you have and you’re freaking out about it, don’t worry. Chances are, we know you had the best intentions in mind when saying them and at the end of the day that’s what matters. However, it still hurts when you say the wrong thing.