What to Say (and Not Say) When an Acquaintance Gets Diagnosed With Cancer

Getting a life-altering diagnosis is scary. Not only does the patient have to contend with the illness and treatments, but also the social parts of their lives that may become more complicated. One area where friends and family can make it a little easier is by being mindful of what to say (or not say) around them. Here are some general tips:

Don’t say: “Everything’s going to be fine.”

First of all, no one can tell the future. Secondly, this statement is often received as a dismissal or a signal to end the conversation or otherwise close off communication with someone who may really need to talk about what they’re going through. It may be coming from a place of wanting to reassure the person, but maybe that’s not what they’re looking for in that exact moment.

Instead: Ask how the person is feeling about their current situation and allow them to feel however they feel about the future.

Don’t say: “When my sister-in-law had cancer, something that really helped her was…”

Just hit the pause button right away. The person who received the diagnosis already has tons of information and advice and treatment steps swirling around in their head while they’re making decisions of what to do next. Complicating matters further with anecdotes or emailing them unsolicited research studies on how goji berries can slow down cancer cells will not be helpful.

Instead: Listen to what they have to say about their preferred treatment plan. If you have something you’d like to offer to the conversation, ask them first if they’d be interested in hearing it – and then respect their decision.

Don’t say: “Everything happens for a reason.”

Even if this would be something comforting for you to hear when going through a difficult time, the same can’t be said for everyone. Actually, this statement could be perceived as very insulting. It’s best to avoid it altogether.

Instead: Simply tell the person you are very sorry they are going through this difficult time.

Don’t say: “How did your doctor visit go? Did they tell you your prognosis? What’s next with treatment?”

Bombarding someone with questions before assessing whether they’d like to talk about the details is risky – it could lead to someone re-experiencing traumatic or otherwise difficult conversations, reflections, and procedures. It’s up to them if they want to share with others.

Instead: Let them know you are there if they’d like to talk about how they are feeling or any details about what they’re going through – and that you will respect their choice to share or not to share.

Don’t say: “Just keep your chin up!”

Any time you feel the knee-jerk reaction to tell someone how they should feel, stop before speaking. Sure, keeping a positive mental attitude can be a great tool while facing adversity, but it isn’t that black and white. People who are going through trying times should know they are allowed to feel however they need to feel. If they are feeling hopeless or confused or determined to move forward – those are all natural.

Instead: Ask them directly how they are feeling and go from there. If they report feeling low, it’s okay to let them cry or yell. If they report feeling optimistic, that’s okay, too.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

63 comments

Marie W
Marie W5 months ago

Thank you

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Camilla V
Camilla Vaga9 months ago

ty

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Beryl L
Beryl L9 months ago

Sounds like common sense to me. If you don't know what to say make it short and sweet and tell them you care.

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Jetana A
Jetana A9 months ago

Commonsense advice, unfortunately badly needed by many.

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Margie F
Margie FOURIE10 months ago

Just listen to them, and give them cannabis oil.

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Peggy B
Peggy B10 months ago

Great tips

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Mike R
Mike R10 months ago

Thanks

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Peggy B
Peggy B10 months ago

Noted

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heather g
heather g10 months ago

Good advice.

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Lesa D
Past Member 10 months ago

thank you Katie...

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