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10 things not to say to someone with cancer

AllClear Team
Last updated 30 October 2017
10 things not to say to someone who has cancer: Diverse group

10 things not to say to someone with cancer: doctor and patients

From an early age, we all have some awareness of cancer.

The UK’s Office of National Statistics estimates that 822 new cases of cancer are diagnosed each day. It’s predicated that by 2020 2.9 million people in the UK will be living with some form of the illness.

Everybody is affected by it, yet it is often difficult to know what to say to someone who has cancer. How do you really know what’s going on? Sometimes it’s easy to put your foot in your mouth!

Just as the disease itself is intricate, knowing what to say can be complex as well. You want to be supportive, but not pitying – encouraging, without sounding insensitive.

Read on to learn the views of people who are living with the condition: the 10 things not to say to someone with cancer…


1. How are you feeling?

This may sound odd, because it’s a question you ask people all the time. To someone with cancer, however, it’s a question they don’t always feel like answering:

“‘How are you feeling?’ made me feel like they were asking about (and only interested in) how my cancer and I were doing, and the answer was always the same: Bad. I liked ‘Whats up?’ which allowed me to avoid the topic entirely if I didnt feeling like talking about it.”  Science of Us

2. We didnt think youd be up for it.

Even though cancer treatments may leave people fatigued, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to have fun! People with cancer still enjoy going out with friends or even travelling. They may require special arrangements, but don’t count them out of a good time:

“Dont assume were not able to do things just because we have cancer. Keep inviting us to stuff. Sometimes we wont be up to it, but sometimes we will, and we desperately need to leave the house!”  Jessie – Cancer Research UK

3. Have you tried…?

It’s a natural reaction to offer advice when someone expresses a problem. But cancer patients often have many doctors offering advice and treatments. So hearing more suggestions from a friend isn’t always what they want to hear:

“Unless you have a piece of advice so stellar that you think we literally cant go on without it, please dont make suggestions about our treatment. Yes, eating kiwis may be an effective way of combating constipation in your everyday life, but if the industrial-strength medical-grade laxatives an actual doctor has prescribed for me arent working, then adding more fruit to my diet probably wont.”  Sarah – Cancer Research UK

4. You shouldn’t travel in your condition.

While it’s true that some people with cancer shouldn’t fly due to changes in air pressure and oxygen levels, that doesn’t mean they cant travel entirely! Doctors still allow patients to travel before and after chemotherapy treatments. In fact, many people with a cancer diagnosis begin travelling more in order to gain new experiences they didn’t have before:

“Although traveling can be physically and mentally exhausting, sometimes getting away from it all is just what you need. And with a bit of planning, you can relax and enjoy your trip.”  Amber – Cancer Net Blog

5. You sound upset? It’s probably just the cancer…

While you shouldn’t disregard someone’s feelings in any situation, you should never assume someone’s mood if solely influenced by their cancer. Like everyone else, people with cancer get happy and sad for a variety of reasons. They still experience emotions just like you:

“Let me experience real emotions. Even though cancer and its treatments can sometimes influence my outlook, I still have normal moods and feelings in response to life events. If Im angry or upset, accept that something made me mad and dont write it off as the disease. I need to experience and express real emotions and not have them minimized or brushed off.”  Kim – Roadkillgoldfish

6.  You’re such a fighter! Stay strong.

These are common phrases you may hear thrown around on TV or in ‘Get Well’ cards, but you should avoid using them. It’s better to say something less general, and more personable specifically to them. People with cancer appreciate encouragement, but these cliched phrases sometimes make them feel uncomfortable:

“But I didnt fight. I didnt do anything besides take a cab to Memorial Sloan-Kettering every week, where I would lie under a warm blanket for hours while I was infused with a chemo cocktail. Cancer doesnt care how tough you are.”  Science of Us

7. My grandfather had cancer, he said it felt like…

Be it a grandparent, parent, or sometimes even your own personal experience, most cancer patients don’t want to hear about other cancer patients. It’s normal for you to want to try ‘relating’ to them by sharing an experience you’ve had. However, it’s better to share positive stories:

“When youre first diagnosed, you tend to regress emotionally. When hearing a story about someone that died from cancer, you identify with that person who dies, and it dashes your hope…You need to hear success stories not horror stories.”  Lori – Facing Cancer Together

8. You still [insert activity]? I didn’t think you could still do that…

Yes, cancer can affect some of the pastimes individuals can partake in, but it doesn’t mean they’ve lost all their personal interests. They can still play sports, go hiking, dance, and many other physical activities. Their doctors will let them know of personal recommendations they have, but most activities are very doable in moderation. Most times, doing things they love will have an extremely positive impact:

“The day I first put on my tatty £15 trainers and went for a jog was the day I took control of my cancer diagnosis…Running showed me that I could be stronger than the disease trying to take my life away. And, by taking just a few steps in the right direction, I had the power to change that life for the better.”  Jackie – Huffington Post

9. I feel so sorry for you.

Showing pity for someone with cancer isn’t a good way to show you care. No likes being pitied, so a person who probably already receives constant emotional sentiments really doesn’t need it.  You may feel sorry for them, but don’t say it. It’s best to just have a genuine conversation, rather than attempt to make your feelings known:

“Some people say to me, ‘Poor Lori.’…You dont want to feel like someone is looking down on you. What you want is to feel compassion and on equal ground… not as if theres something wrong with you or that theres something you did that gave you cancer.”  Lori – Facing Cancer Together

10. Say nothing at all

Sometimes we tend to say nothing at all in lieu of saying the wrong thing. When it comes to people with cancer, it’s better to say something. This doesn’t mean every conversation should be about their condition. It shouldn’t. However, you should make them comfortable enough to confide in you when they want to. Just being there as a positive friend with something hopeful to say can do wonders:

“I hear my patients talking about [cancer] being a challenge and always needing hope,” says Dr. Remondini. “They need some sort of middle ground where they can find peace with themselves and their cancer. It offers more wiggle room than the alternatives of ‘Youre a hero’ and ‘Youre going to beat this’. Hope implies that your situation is out of your control, that theres potential for multiple outcomes both good and bad.”  Science of Us

Article sources:

The information in this blog post is not intended to replace professional medical advice. It is a general overview of a broad medical care topic. Blog posts are not tailored to one person’s specific medical requirements, diagnosis or treatment. If you do notice symptoms or you require medical advice, you should always consult your doctor or healthcare provider to obtain professional medical help. Read through our disclaimer for more information.

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