6 things to never say to someone with cancer

You might think you are helping, but are your words doing more harm than good?

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  • Talking with someone who has a serious illness can be a sticky situation. You want to offer help, comfort, and support, but don't want to be intrusive or offensive. Like anything, there's some etiquette to know before reaching out to a friend or family member.

  • Let me know if there's something I can do

  • While you honestly mean it, this offer is especially vague. It may be uncomfortable for your friend to actually take you up on a favor because you haven't really clarified what you mean by "something."

  • If you are looking to offer help, be very specific. Offer to bring dinner and dessert on Tuesday, or pick up milk and eggs at the market later tonight. By offering something concrete, you let your friend know exactly how you can help while letting you both choose a time or situation that would be beneficial.

  • Oh, my aunt had cancer

  • ….Or my grandma, my cousin, my dad, or my dog. It's a common reaction to sympathize or personally connect with your friend's situation, but it can very extremely hurtful if you do. It minimizes their conflict because you can't really know how they are feeling, no matter who you knew with cancer. For a young patient, the connection between a grandmother experiencing the same type of cancer doesn't connect well with their situation at all.

  • Instead, appreciate their unique situation. There isn't any way you can know how they are feeling, even if you do know someone with the same diagnosis. Choose to connect in other ways by still spending time together like you did before a diagnosis. Let your friend know that this illness doesn't change your friendship.

  • But you are looking great!

  • Even though this may be true, it doesn't mean your friend is truly feeling great. Having a serious illness takes a severe emotional, physical, and psychological toll on a person, and feeling like they need to look strong and brave makes it that much more difficult.

  • Letting your friend know that you can be there to cry or be upset with lets them avoid the need to put on a "looking great" face. Sometimes, your friend will need someone to just be sad with, and being there in any way you can is great way to support someone.

  • At least they caught it early

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  • Why you think you are being positive about the situation, the reality of a serious diagnosis is still there. An online community of young cancer patients discusses how frustrating it is to hear this. Yes, the cancer may be in its early stages, but it is still cancer. The treatments are still difficult. This whole situation is still overwhelming.

  • There's really no way around this phrase, just avoid it completely. Take cues from your friend about what's appropriate to talk about. For some, there's a need to avoid all cancer related topics: respect that wish. For others, you may be needed to hear all about the details and emotions of this trying time and help your friend talk through the procedures.

  • Everything happens for a reason

  • You may believe this mentality, but it doesn't change the situation. Hearing that cancer happened for some unidentified reason can be extremely disheartening to hear for your sick friend.

  • Be supportive in other ways. Don't push alternative treatment options, religion, or unwanted advice. Respect physical boundaries, and don't be offended if your friend declines your invitations or offers to help out. Just knowing that there is someone out there who is offering to listen, or help can be comforting.

  • You're so positive, you will get through this

  • Positive thoughts are helpful in recovery, but it can be frustrating for your sick friend to hear. Mary Elizabeth Williams discussed her own experience with cancer, and how she felt about this particular comment:

  • "I think the worst have been the comments from people who meant well but said, "Cancer knows better than to mess with you!" or "You're so strong; you have such a great attitude; you'll get through it." My best friend and I went through cancer together, and she died. I find it so hurtful when people treat survivors like we somehow succeeded, in a situation that's so cruel and random. Would they have considered me a failure if I'd died?"

  • Sometimes, there just isn't any amount of "positive thinking" or "strength" that can overcome an illness. Be the positive support system to lean on when things get difficult.

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  • It sounds vague, but the best ways to help someone who is sick is to really be there for them. Keep the invitations coming, let them decide if they don't feel up to going to a soccer game our outdoor picnic. Send a note or two to say "I'm thinking of you". Keep anniversaries in mind to let your friend know that you are aware of events in his or her life. Respect boundaries, but don't be afraid to reach out. Leave a phone number with concrete offers, but don't be offended if you don't get a call. It's normal to want to be alone, but having people who want to help lets them feel like they aren't alone.

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Emily is putting her English and Humanities degree to use editing and writing all over the world. Trying to see all 7 world wonders (while visiting as many countries as she can in between), Emily loves wandering alleyways, beautifully photographed food, stumbling upon impromptu flea and food markets. She can usually be found camera in hand, munching on a street food and never has her headphones out of reach.

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