This Is What Not to Say to Someone With Cancer – And What to Say, Instead

Claudia Canavan
·4-min read
Photo credit: Tim Robberts - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Robberts - Getty Images

From Women's Health

A cancer diagnosis is always painful, traumatic and terrifying. Layer on a global health pandemic – which is seeing some people’s appointments and treatment being pushed back, and preventing those impacted from being able to hug and hold their loved ones, outside of their household – and it becomes even more complex.

Of this reality, Dame Laura Lee DBE, Chief Executive of national cancer charity, Maggie’s, said: ‘There is no question that coronavirus has affected all of our lives, but the impact of the pandemic on people with cancer is often forgotten, brutal and will be felt for many years to come.

How has the pandemic impacted people with cancer?

‘People now face a threefold psychological blow – the trauma of diagnosis, fear of treatment delays with possible worsened outcomes and the stress of isolation.’

This World Cancer Day 2021, it's vital we think about the toll that this time has taken on those caught up in cancer treatment, and how reaching out with help, from a physical distance, is key.

Rochelle, a 30-year-old from south Manchester, who was diagnosed with stage 4 triple negative breast cancer this summer, shared what has been helping her the most at this time.

'When you feel really sick you don't tend to want to cook, for example, and people saying "I've sent you a food delivery box" or "I've left some soup on your doorstep" are amazing. I've also had friends deliver me healthy juices that I fancied and nice bread: lovely treats that cheer the day up. I'm relatively active now, but there have been points in my treatment where I've been highly immunosuppressed, so going to the supermarket isn't an option. People offering to do your shopping for you, in those times, is so helpful.'

As to what to say? WH asked Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, to fill us in on how to speak to someone living with this disease in a kind, compassionate way.

Here's his expert advice.

What to say to someone dealing with cancer

Don't say: 'Don't worry, everything will be fine'

This isn't a helpful thing to say, because, for some people, everything is not going to be fine. All of of us want to help when someone close to us has been affected by cancer but that can mean we jump in too fast with reassurance and sometimes people want you to listen to and hear their sadness and their upset.

Plus, it can feel insulting. It says that you want the person to stop talking about their feelings and closes the conversation, rather than opening it up.

Don't say: 'You're so brave'

Some people do get annoyed about people saying this – they’re not necessarily feeling very 'brave' and they don’t have any option, anyway. They didn’t choose to take on cancer. This can feel irritating and patronising.

Don't say: 'I had a friend who had cancer and what happened to them was X'

What happened to someone else is not necessarily going to reflect this person's experience. You can wind up saying something inappropriate that doesn't apply to this situation.

Don't say: 'I’ve been on the internet and there’s a new miracle treatment'

In the UK, we have access to very good treatments and doctors do their best to give you an honest choice about what you can and can’t have. [Ed's note: there's a proliferation of 'cancer cures' that are not based on science and can be dangerous, online. Avoid.]

Don't say: 'You’ve got to be positive’

The person with cancer can hear this and think: 'Why do I have to be positive? I am not feeling positive right now.' It can make people feel that they can’t express their upset. Again, it closes things down, it doesn’t open things up.

Do say: 'How are you?'

It doesn't sound dramatic, but it is helpful. Ask the question and be prepared to listen to what that person comes back with – avoid jumping back in with something else. Open questions means that the person has space to delve into their feelings and express themselves.

Do say: 'Are there any practical things I can help out with?'

This is a great thing to ask. You can remove some stress by helping out with things like food shopping or admin.

Do say: ‘How would you like me to support you?’

When you say this, you give the person control back. You can understand what sort of things might help. Do be ready to do something if you make this offer, of course.

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