Say This, NOT That: 8 Things Your Friend With Cancer Doesn’t Want To Hear, and What To Say Instead

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Well, it happened. Your friend was diagnosed with cancer. You weren’t ready, and you feel a little guilty that it wasn’t you. You don’t know quite what to say, but you’re determined to stick by your friend through her darkest days.

It’s hard, in a situation that’s unfamiliar and frightening, to know what to do. The word “cancer” scares us, and it can it causes many caring people abandon their friend with cancer because they just can’t handle it. Even if we do stand by, we can feel awkward, helpless, and be tempted to say things that are well-meant but not helpful.

Your support can make such a difference for a cancer patient! As you set out to stick by your friend, take a look at this list of things of less-than-helpful things people tend to say, and try some more helpful alternatives. Remember, everyone makes mistakes! But think twice before you use any of these eight unhelpful phrases:

1. “Let me know if you need anything.”

This one’s hard, because it’s often very sincere. The problem is that, in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, a patient may have no idea what they need or be too shy or overwhelmed to ask. Stay in the giving spirit, and try offering something practical like:

  • “Can I drive you to an appointment?”
  • “I’d like to drop off a meal or two. Would Friday work, and does your family like spaghetti?”
  • “I hate doing dishes when I’m sick. Can I come over and do yours on Saturdays?”
  • “Would it be helpful if I took your kids to school/on an outing/overnight?”
  • “I’ll check back in with you in a week.” (Your friend may be overwhelmed with offers of help at first. Remember that she’ll still need help later on, and she’ll be grateful if you remember cancer treatment is not a one-and-done deal.)

2. “You’re a fighter!”

Even if your friend is the women’s heavyweight champion of the world, cancer treatment will be painful. Thinking positive is great, but sometimes an influx of messages like “think pink” and “beat cancer” can put the pressure on a patient to bottle up her fears out of fear of not “staying positive.” Be a safe place for your friend with phrases like:

  • “I’m so sorry this happened.”
  • “I care so much about you.”
  • “I’m so sorry. Do you want to talk about it, or would you rather watch TV?” Be ready to talk, but understand that your friend may be sick of talking about cancer.
  • “…” Yep, a friend who can just sit and listen, really listen, is worth her weight in gold.

3. “It will be okay.”

Your friend needs to know she can trust you, and when it comes to cancer, things very well might not be okay. The patient may lose her hair, get very sick, lose a body part, or even pass away. Even if none of these things happen, cancer can leave a person with cancer-related PTSD and long-lasting side effects. You’ll need to be brave to face this with your friend. She may appreciate hearing:

  • “I’m with you no matter what.”
  • “I’m not scared of a little hair loss/incontinence/nausea.” Commit to not being squeamish about the hard parts of cancer treatment, and make your friend feel comfortable.
  • “My heart is broken for you!”
  • “I’m ready to listen any time you want to talk.”

“NEXT” for more things not to say!

Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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