What Not to Say to Someone with Cancer
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
If you have a friend or loved one who has cancer they are going through a lot, but you are also going to be experiencing many emotions and probably feel lost and scared yourself.
I found that a lot of people didn't know what to say to me so they would either avoid the topic altogether or say something stupid. I fully understood that everyone meant well but it could be hurtful to have them minimise my feelings or hear some of these phrases. I’m sharing them so you can avoid unintentionally hurting your friend.
My friend/aunt/cousin had xxx cancer, they passed away.
It blows my mind that people say this to cancer patients.
Maybe they think the patient will understand the sadness they feel as you are going through it, or maybe they feel they are empathising but DON'T DO IT!
One of the things that got me through the darkest days was reminding myself that I knew more people that had come through cancer than hadn't. The last thing I needed was to be informed of people who had died. I know people die of cancer.. I thought about it all the time and I didn’t need to be reminded!
You shouldn't eat XXXX.
People think they are being helpful with this one, but it can often bring on feelings of guilt that the patient has somehow brought this on themselves through lifestyle choices.
There is a lot of misinformation online about certain foods and cancer so please let the patient talk with their medical team and make decisions on what they put into their body during this time.
I don't smoke, have never taken a drug in my life and drink very little, but chocolate is my vice. Some days chocolate was what I needed to get me through the day and well meaning friends making me feel bad about that was the last thing I needed.
Although unsolicited advice mostly comes from a place of caring, it can add to the confusion.
Your friend is probably overwhelmed with all the information they are taking in from their oncology team and researching themselves. Don’t add to it.
There is a lot of misinformation online, in 2016, more than half of the 20 most shared cancer articles on Facebook consisted of medically discredited claims. This can muddy the waters around cancer care and in the worst case can be deadly.
Your friend's oncology team are highly trained and have dedicated their life to saving people from this dreadful disease. They know what they are doing & pioneering cancer research by medical experts has ensured that cancer survival rates have never been better.
Telling your friend to shift to a high fat diet, inject herbs into their prostate or rub castor oil on their skin on the advice of an online influencer can be confusing and dangerous.
Before giving any advice, ask your friend if they are open to hearing what you have to say and if they aren't respect their wishes.
Commenting on changes in appearance
"It’s just hair, it grows back"
"You get a free boob job"
“Your hair is so lovely I hope you don’t lose it “
"You'll look great with a bald head"
"Scars look badarse"
"You look like you've gained / lost weight"
PLEASE think before you utter any of these sentences or anything similar about any part of your friend's body.
It isn't just hair, it is a part of your identity, femininity and a form of self expression. Losing it is a very public sign and a personal reminder that you are unwell.
It isn't a free boob job it is hugely invasive and traumatic surgery which could leave the patient without breasts for a few years whilst they wait for reconstruction surgery.
Commenting on someone's weight is inconsiderate at the best of times but can be highly emotive if they are gaining or losing weight as a result of treatments.
I found the thought of losing my hair hugely traumatic. Before cancer I wasn't a particularly girly girl and didn't spend a lot of time or money maintaining my hair. In fact, most days you would find me with a messy bun on top of my head, but I loved its colour, length and texture - losing it was terrifying.
I learnt about cold capping and wanted to try this but many people around me encouraged me to cut it off because I would “still look great with a bald head”. This came from a place of love but I found it frustrating that my feelings were being dismissed. Although I managed to keep half my hair through cold capping (thank you Paxman!) I still found it incredibly confronting when I caught myself unaware in the mirror. I didn't recognise myself with short thin hair and no eyebrows or eyelashes.
Your friend will be going through a lot physically and potentially struggling with changes to their appearance. If they express their emotions around this don't minimise them.
Acknowledge what they are going through and sympathise, let them vent.
"Your hair is gorgeous and it sucks that you are going to lose it" can make your friend feel heard and understood.
This follows on from above, your friend is going to be feeling a LOT of different emotions.
Try to let them have their feelings and express them instead of trying to placate them.
Again, people really do mean well but it can seem dismissive of your friend's emotions and the severity of the situation.
"You’ll be fine or It will all be ok! Don’t worry!"
You don't know this unless you are an oncologist specialising in your friend's particular cancer. Although it is tempting to be positive and encouraging by telling them they will be fine this can minimise their feelings and how scared they are. Telling a cancer patient not to worry is ridiculous, there is so much to worry about!
"I know how you feel."
Unless you have personally gone through cancer treatment you don't know and you can't know. Don't compare it to a broken foot or your IBS, it isn't the same and you can't possibly understand how it feels to lose your hair, taste and be constantly worried that any ache or pain is the cancer popping up in a different place.
"You're tough" or "you're so brave."
Again this is meant with love and to encourage positivity. However, sometimes even the toughest people are scared shitless and allowing them to express that without having to be brave in that moment is the kindest thing you can do for them.
"You will beat this because you are strong."
What if they can't beat it, what if they have been given a terminal diagnosis, does that mean they have let everyone down by not being strong enough or not fighting hard enough?
"Everything happens for a reason."
If you are referring to a random set of coincidences that led to the discovery of their cancer then this is actually OK.
However, if you are referring to the actual cancer then this can be very insensitive. When you are in the midst of something as scary as cancer, being told that there is a bigger reason for it is not helpful.
If you find yourself needing to talk to someone after reading this article you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or The Cancer Council on 13 11 20
Considerate Gifts for your friend
We have a carefully curated selection of gifts for your loved one in our store but I also recommend these products which I absolutely loved during my cancer treatment.
Clinique Even Better Clinical Radical Dark Spot Corrector.
Your friend's skin is going to be going through hell during chemo and can become more blemished than normal. I used this to clear up some skin damage and absolutely loved the texture and the results for reducing blemishes & correcting skin tone. I have continued to use it now I'm post chemo.
Eau Thermale Avène Cicalfate+ Restorative Protective Cream
Avène Cicalfate+ Restorative Protective Cream helps repair damaged, dry, cracked, and non-oozing skin in 48 hours. Skin is immediately soothed after the first application, and the cutaneous barrier is restored. You can give your friend the gift of moisture for their dry & dull skin.
Cancer Council Daywear SPF 50+ Light Tint BB Cream
Show you care by giving your friend the gift of sun protection. Chemo damages the skin and makes it more sensitive to light. Encourage your friend to use this daily and they will give their skin the best chance of staying safe during their treatment.
Cancer Council Australia
CCA an organisation to support all Australians affected by cancer through support, research and prevention programs.
Ovarian Cancer Australia
OCA is an independent national not-for-profit organisation, supporting women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Our focus is to provide care and support for those affected by ovarian cancer; and represent them by leading change. Our vision is to save lives and ensure no woman with ovarian cancer walks alone.
Breast Cancer Network Australia
BCNA Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) is Australia’s leading breast cancer consumer organisation. We have worked tirelessly to ensure that all Australians who are affected by breast cancer receive the very best care, treatment and support.
Bowel Cancer Australia
BCA Peer-to-Peer Support Network connects patient’s and loved ones on a one-to-one buddy basis that enables members to give and receive advice about their bowel cancer experience in an informal and mutually beneficial way.
LF is a support service for patients and supporters dealing with blood cancers.
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