Lists of things not to say to cancer patients and why to ignore them

Get well soon card

Yesterday this article appeared on my Facebook wall:

It’s another list of things you apparently should never say to someone with cancer. It seemed to me like a pretty negative article for a site that’s usually accused of being all rainbows and unicorns.

I was going to comment, suggesting that the author was still angry about her treatment and might like to give it some time before she offers advice. Cancer is hard. Anger is inevitable. I was a bit shocked by some of the comments on the article, and on the Facebook post. This poor woman got slammed.

Every so often someone suggests to me that I could attract more readers by promoting my blog, rather than just letting it grow quietly in this hidden corner of the garden. It’s even been suggested by close friends that I start a Youtube channel and upload videos of myself giving advice. When you see the comments on an article like this one you’ll understand why I don’t. There are some nasty people out there.

Perhaps the article should be called “5 things you should never say to me if I have cancer”. The first mistake this author made was assuming to speak for all of us.

I once wrote something similar about what I did or didn’t want people to say to me. Regular followers of this blog will remember it. By the time I’d had recurrence and more surgery I was just grateful for the friends that stuck by me. They could say whatever they wanted to me!

I think one of the reasons that some people leave our lives is that they’ve become so anxious about saying the wrong thing. Articles like this one don’t help. So let me apologise for my previous advice about what not to say and replace it with the following.


1. How are you feeling today?

This is preferable to a general ‘How are you?’ because it’s specific to the present and allows you to then offer help if needed.

2. What can I do to help?

Or just find something to do to help. I had two friends turn up and weed the garden. Other people dropped off frozen meals or drove me to treatment. It was all appreciated.

3. I don’t know what to say.

Just say it. Be honest. Be authentic. You’ll probably get a response like “Yeah, I know. Me neither.” and then you can have a conversation about something else.

4. What would you like to talk about?

Sometimes the answer will be ‘cancer’ and sometimes the answer will be ‘anything but cancer’ but people will appreciate you asking.

5. Would you like a cuddle?

We’re not contagious or toxic and affection can be wonderful for helping to cope with pain – just not if you’ve got a cold or flu because catching a cold can kill someone on chemo.

6. Please let me know if you want me to go. I won’t be offended.

Sometimes treatment is exhausting and we find company tiring.

7. You look great!

I think the protocol for this one is simple. If I’ve clearly gone to some effort with my appearance then tell me how great I look. That was the whole point of making all that effort. If I’m just hanging around the house in my track suit then probably best not to comment.

8. I love you.

This never gets old. And you don’t want to regret not saying it.

Most importantly, don’t abandon us if you can possibly avoid it. Some people are going to. They’ll find it too difficult or confronting. They’ll find it brings up memories of someone they loved that died of cancer. They’ll want to protect themselves from the possibility of having to weep at our funerals and comfort our loved ones so they’ll suddenly or gradually distance themselves.

Please know that it’s your friendship that matters, and our friendship for you includes always remembering that people sometimes make mistakes, and sometimes say things that might upset us, but if we remember their love for us it really doesn’t matter.

Friendship also means you might need to remember ┬áthat cancer will make us sad and angry and oversensitive and sometimes hard to be around. We might take offence at the smallest thing. It’s really our problem and not yours. Just hang in there and say whatever you like.

By all means say, “I understand that you’re upset but it’s not okay to talk to me like that.” Cancer does not give us licence to behave badly. It just gives you a reason to forgive us when we do.

Most of all, ignore the lists of things to say and things not to say. Some people hate any comment on their appearance, some people don’t want to be asked about help, some people might be angry that you don’t know what to say. Some won’t. We’re all individuals. Nobody speaks for all of us. That’s why my list includes the word ‘might’.

At some point there are no ‘wrong’ things to say to us. We’re just so happy that you’re still in our lives.