Cancer Do’s and Don’ts

Cancer Do’s and Don’ts

Do you have a friend or family member going through cancer?  I know you want to do the right thing, but unless you’ve done this before you may be wondering what that right thing is.  Today, I want to share some tips on what to say and what NOT to say.  One thing that we constantly hear is, “I am afraid of saying the wrong thing.” Often times, people will avoid saying anything at all rather than say the wrong thing. In an attempt to “relate” or share a common experience, sometimes things get said that cause more harm than good.

Here are a list of common things that people say, along with some alternative language that you might find more helpful…

  • “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you.” First, don’t say it unless you mean it. Most women will respond by saying, “Thank you, I will.” But then, won’t. If she does get brave enough to finally call you and ask you for help, and you can’t help right then for a legitimate reason, try to make another arrangement. For example, If she asks you to do something at a certain time, and you are unavailable at that time, first explain why you can’t do it at that time, and ask if there is another time that would work. If not, try to think of someone else that might be able to help and then make the call for her. The worst case is that her request for help goes unanswered and there doesn’t appear to be an effort to try. She will be embarrassed that she asked, and distrust all other efforts to help. Most likely, she will not ask again. Added note – if you do offer to help, tell her that you don’t know exactly what she needs, but that you want to be there for her. Know that she is unlikely to call you, so make sure you follow up with a phone call a few days later to check on her.
  • “My mom, (sister, friend, etc), had breast cancer and she died.” The last thing a cancer patient wants to hear is about the people who died from it. Try instead, “I’m sorry you are going through this. My Mom (sister, friend, etc) had breast cancer, and though I can’t fully understand what you are feeling, I know it was tough for her. It shows that you have some understanding of the seriousness.
  • “I know how you feel.” Don’t say it unless you do. It’s hard to know fully, and understand unless you’ve been diagnosed yourself, and even then, you likely don’t know EXACTLY what she is feeling. It’s better to say, “I really don’t know how you feel, but I can only imagine you must be scared right now.” It’s better to admit that you don’t know. It shows vulnerability on your part.
  • “Nobody dies of breast cancer anymore.” It is true that more women survive than don’t. But, it is a serious disease and we still lose far too many women. At the beginning of treatment, most of us don’t know where we fall on the chart. To make a statement like that invalidates her fear. Her fear is real and justified. It would be better to say something like, “I know this is really scary, but they are getting so much better at treating this than in the past. The doctors are more knowledgeable. We’ll be here to support you every step of the way.” It gives hope while still recognizing her feelings.
  • Don’t ignore her.  No matter what happens, please don’t make the mistake of ignoring her. Loneliness is a major culprit in depression. It’s hard to accept that the world might go on without being a part of it. When everyone stays away, those feelings escalate and fear takes hold. Find ways to be proactive in your support.

Sometimes, we back away and then feel guilty because too much time has passed, and now we don’t know WHAT to say to make it okay.  Try this:

  • I’m so sorry it’s been so long since I’ve called you.  I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing and didn’t want to hurt you.  But today, I read something that made me think of you and I realize how wrong it was to not reach out.  Please forgive me (.. and then start over with some of these other thoughts and ideas.)


Knowing what TO say can be a bit more difficult.  Here are some ideas…

  • I’m so sorry this happened.  But please know I will be here for you.  And then make sure you are by checking in with her often to see what she needs.
  • This must be very scary for you. I know I would be scared. Unless you have been there, you can’t possibly really know how she feels, but imagining what it would feel like is a good starting point.
  • I know this is frightening, but the good news is that more women survive than ever before.  No one ever really knows where they will fall on the survival grid, but with all the research being done, they are getting better all the time at treating this disease.

So what can you do??

  • Call often just to check in with her.
  • Find out what’s on her grocery list and tell her you are on your way to the grocery store. See what she needs and drop it by. (Her groceries can either be a gift to her, or if money is tight, tell her she can write you a check when you get there.)
  • Schedule a date to drop by with a funny movie.  Everyone likes to laugh.  Schedule a time when she is feeling physically better so she is not sick from a recent treatment.  Having you there to help her enjoy the next two hours will get her out of her sadness and give her somewhere else to focus.
  • Ask if you can come by and visit. When you get there, bring rubber gloves and cleaning supplies. Tell her you are there to clean her house.
  • Click here for more ideas or call Breast Friends at 888-386-8048.

No matter how long it has been since you have contacted her, it’s never too late to start over.

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