When my husband was diagnosed with cancer our family was thrown headfirst into a new world of tests and tumours, studies and survival rates.
The love and support of our friends and family has been so important to us and I am grateful for every person who has reached out and made this journey a little easier. I am not sharing this list to berate anyone, as I know it’s so difficult to know what to say, but to hopefully help people have a better idea of how to respond. It’s not until you are dealing with cancer that you have the insight to realise what well meaning words can do.
Here are 14 things not to say to a family coping with cancer
1. LET ME KNOW IF I CAN DO ANYTHING
This is the most common comment people make and I know they genuinely mean it. The problem is, it is non-commital. It puts the responsibility back on the people dealing with cancer to ask for help, at a time when their energy is already depleted. Instead, try asking: What can I do to help? Or offer something specific like looking after the children or driving to the hospital. Even better, just do something.
2. WERE THERE ANY SYMPTOMS?
I know this seems like a caring question but the main issue with it is: why are you asking it? It is not for the family dealing with cancer. They already know and reliving the answer is not going to help. The question is really for the person asking to garner information or feel reassured that they don’t have those symptoms or would not miss them. And I understand, but it’s not about you. Just listen and let the person tell you as much information as they want to.
3. WHAT IS THE PROGNOSIS?/WHAT STAGE IS IT?/DID THEY CATCH IT EARLY?
Of course you are concerned and want to know what your friend or loved one is facing but this is not something you should be asking. If they want to share that information they will but don’t put them in the difficult position of answering your questions. It may not be something they are ready to face or talk about. They may not want to label it or they may just not want the sympathy when they are trying to remain positive.
4. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK
You do not know this. No-one knows this. Although it is offered as a reassuring token of support, it just seems like you are not taking the situation seriously or glossing over the complex emotions that it brings. Try instead just saying you are there for them, you will support them whatever happens or acknowledging how unfair it all is.
5. BE POSITIVE
Telling someone they need to be positive suggests that it is wrong to be anything else. Instead, it is important to let them know that it’s OK not to be OK. Let them talk, cry, rant, or share whatever feelings they are experiencing. Love and support are two of the biggest things that will help someone stay positive – not telling them to be.
6. THEY CAN FIGHT THIS
Stay strong. Keep fighting. You can beat this. There are a lot of issues with the battle language used when talking about cancer. People talk like this to try and offer support and encouragement but it also puts the onus back on the person. What if they don’t feel strong? What if they don’t beat it – does that mean they didn’t fight hard enough?
7. YOU SHOULD TRY…
…Going sugar free/the Keto diet/cannabis oil/accupuncture/tumeric. Unless you are medical expert or oncologist, then you do not have the expertise to know what someone with cancer should try. By telling them they need to try an alternative treatment, there is the underlying suggestion that they are not trying hard enough if they simply follow medical guidance. And I can guarantee they have already googled it much more than you anyway.
8. MY FRIEND/NEIGHBOUR//BROTHER HAD CANCER – THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED
Yes, sadly cancer affects so many people but all their journeys and experiences are different. It’s natural to want to find a connection when someone shares bad news but it’s usually going to end one of two ways: the person died (not a good story to share) or the person survived and you want to share how they did it. Which takes us back to point number 7.
9. THEY HAVE SO MUCH TO LIVE FOR
Thanks. We know. This comment is often followed by…’so they will have lots to fight for’ or ‘so they must try everything they can to beat this’ which again implies it is on the person with the cancer to find the secret ingredient to beat it. Otherwise, they clearly don’t like their life enough. Cancer is not a choice and nor is dying from it. The person and their family is more than aware how much they will all lose.
10. I KNOW EXACTLY HOW YOU FEEL
No you don’t. Now, if you have had cancer or a loved one has suffered from it then it is totally understandable to want to empathise with the family’s situation. However, everyone’s experience is different and you cannot assume that anyone else is coping with it in the same way or feeling the way you did. Instead, try saying ‘I’ve also experienced this so I’m here if you want to talk’.
11. YOU’RE SO BRAVE
Brave is a choice. Brave is doing something you are scared of to help someone else. Having a situation forced upon you does not make you brave. I understand what people are trying to acknowledge but it is better to say – ‘I admire how you are coping with this situation’ or ‘You have such a positive approach to what’s happening’. Save bravery for firemen.
12. I’M PRAYING FOR YOU
The intention is a good one but unless you know the person you are talking to shares your religious beliefs, then this is not the time to make it part of the conversation.
13. HOW ARE YOU FEELING?
Probably not that great. It can be tiring to continually answer this question. Reliving all the details of a cancer diagnosis, treatment and the effect it has had on the family is not pleasant and means the person you are asking is likely to give a ‘we’re fine’ response to avoid any follow ups. Instead, try asking about something totally unrelated to the cancer. The rest of life still goes on and it’s nice to be reminded about that sometimes.
It can be so hard to know what to say in this situation but ignoring it is the worst thing you can do. Yes, it may make you feel uncomfortable, sad or scared but this is not about you.
It’s ok to just say ‘I don’t know what to say’, ‘F**k’, ‘That sucks’ or anything else that acknowledges the depth of the situation. Try saying ‘I’m thinking of you’, ‘I’m here for you’ or ‘Call me any time’.
You don’t need to solve it. You can’t.
Just be there.