What Not To Say To a Cancer Patient

I’d say for the first 4 months after diagnosis, cancer was the only thing I thought about. Even when I thought about something else, I thought about it in relation to cancer. It consumed my every single thought. So when I would run into somebody that didn’t know about the diagnosis, I couldn’t ever think of anything else to talk about.

Some people responded very strangely to the news, though, when I told them. Most people would be shocked, or worried, or both, but some people… Some people would totally ignore it. Like I never said it. Or they’d act like “I have cancer” is a normal thing to say. Or worse, some people would mark that as the end of the conversation. “Ok, well, I got to go,” they’d say hurriedly. Or they’d change the subject immediately. The news would just send them directly into fight or flight mode, and they’d start running. It was interesting.

It’s such awful news, that there’s bound to be some inappropriate responses to it.

The worst, I thought, was when someone knew about it, but would play dumb until I told them. They’d ask me what I’m up to and then stare at me. It would be the stare that would give them away. They’d just be too interested in my response. So I’d hint at it a bit, “oh, I haven’t been feeling that well,” or, “well, things have been better…” Hoping they’d just say, “yes, I heard.” But instead, they’d say, “oh?” So I’d have to go through the mix of emotions that always came whenever I’d have to tell someone that I had cancer.

And once I went through all that, they’d say, “oh, yeah, I know.” Still staring. Waiting for the show I guess.

Everyone, let me explain how you should respond to someone who just got diagnosed with cancer:

Do not ignore them. Do not stop calling them because suddenly you don’t know what to say. Do not try to avoid them in social situations because you are uncomfortable.

Go up to them. Call them. E-mail them. Tell them, first, that you heard about the cancer. Tell them second that you think it sucks and you’re sorry to hear about it.

Don’t talk about your uncle who died of the same cancer. Don’t talk about how your whole family has had cancer, and you’ll probably die of it, too. Don’t talk about how many people die of it every year. Don’t talk about death.

Don’t talk about how you once got diagnosed with pneumonia, so you can understand what it’s like. No you can’t. Don’t try. Tell them you can’t even imagine what it’s like to go through something like this.

Do not talk about the alternative medicine that you read about in Crazy Monthly, that is sure to cure them of their disease. Don’t tell them that their treatment isn’t good for them, and that lot’s of people end up dying from the treatments, or that chemotherapy is just a big conspiracy between the government and the pharmaceutical companies, etc., etc. Don’t tell them how they got it. Just stop. They don’t need to hear about it.

If they are sad about it, don’t tell them that they shouldn’t be sad. They have a right to be sad, or exhausted, or whatever it is they feel. Don’t tell them what to do.

Ask them about the treatment – then listen to the response. It might be a long response, with a lot of medical terms. Listen anyway. It’s all they probably think about right now, anyway, so just let them talk about it.

Give them a hug, or a handshake, or a pat on the back. Touch them somehow. Tell them that you’re concerned for them, and you’re looking forward to them being a cancer survivor.

Do not give them the line, “if there’s anything I can do just tell me…”, unless you are absolutely certain that you would do ANYTHING for them. Just don’t say it. Because most people don’t mean it. If you really want to do something for them, come up with the idea yourself, and then do it. Send them flowers, or a book, or bring over dinner for them.

150 Responses to “What Not To Say To a Cancer Patient”

  • Hey, I googled “what not to say to a cancer patient” and yr blog came up first. Thanks for this – I’m going to be doing a posting on this subject & I especially like the last one “If there’s ANYTHING I can do…”

    Yeah, right. We were so exhausted taking care of my mom-in-law, who wanted to die at home, so I told one woman we needed some meals. She had just finished saying this line, but when she heard what I needed, she said, “Oh, I don’t cook. What’s wrong; why can’t *you* cook?” hahaha! I never asked anyone again.

    A few days later, someone just showed up on the front steps with a full meal for everyone – yesss! What a blessing that was.

    Anyways, I started my blog when I was diagnosed in August 2009. It’s good therapy.

    Take care and hope you are doing okay,

    Wendy Farha
    Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    • Thanks Wendy, good to hear from you. Unfortunately, your story sounds just like what I and a lot of cancer survivors went through. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it, right!?

      I hope you’re doing well. Keep in touch.

  • Haha…I was going to start a similar list. It is amazing the things people say without meaning to hurt your feelings. Most of the time it is an attempt to get you to see the “Silver lining”.

    My favorite was shortly after I began chemo for Hodgkin’s someone said, “Well at least you already have a child.”

    Ummm…I am only 28 and recently married…maybe I had planned on having another???

    New York

  • Thank you for sharing this. It’s a post that EVERYONE should read! Wishing you and Jessica a long, healthy, cancer-free life!

  • Hi Dave

    Congratulations on your survivorship! I’m a cancer survivor myself and it’s always inspirational to read other survivors’ stories.

    My journey with cancer led me to resigning my corporate job and joining a cancer organisation full time. I’m doing a talk to a nursing college this morning on what NOT to say to cancer patients and whilst doing some research on the topic I stumbled across your blog.

    I would love to put a link to your blog on our website if you wouldn’t mind. I think it’s informative and filled with lots of hope. It just confirms again how much all cancer survivors and patients can relate to one another, no matter where on earth we live.

    Wishing you much joy and health.

    People Living With Cancer
    Cape Town

    • Sure Eldre – please feel free to link.

      @Frances – I had some of those same experiences. I still have friends that never talked to me again after I was diagnosed – it’s been over 5 years now! And not just acquaintances – real, lifetime friends stopped talking to me altogether. It still hurts a bit, to be honest.

  • Now that my hair is (slowly but surely) growing back after my 12 treatments for Hodgkins, people comment on my “cool haircut” all the time and tell me how brave I am to cut my hair so short. “Oh, hey, thanks…I had it done at the Chemo Salon. For just a $20 co-pay every two weeks, you too can have the same haircut.” Sometimes I use that line and sometimes I just smile and nod.

    • Thank you for the answer on haircuts. I am the mother of someone going through cancer treatments. My favorite to me was Aren’t you going to shave your hair off to? I really couldn’t think of anything but No. My daughter lives with me and just what she wouldn’t want. I know I offered but have to admit I would have been horrible at doing it.

  • Thank you so much! I was told in January this year, outside of immediate family I have told 3 friends with award responces. One that I thought would run a mile has been very supportive and wonderful, another has ran for the hills, dispite my supporting her mothers Alzimers after losing my own mum to it. I’m not into tit for tat but this has left me feeling very angry, dissappointed, and not wishing to continue our ‘friendship’ which in turn is making me angry and disappointed in myself.

    Would you mind if I were to use your list of what not to say.

    All the very best

    Frances. UK

  • Jennifer Feuerman

    Dear David,

    Thank you for producing such an incredible blog and sharing such honest and personal experiences. I was looking for some insight, and I appreciate having found this.

    I have two people in my life that are close to me that have been recently diagnosed with cancer. The first is my mother-in-law to be (I’m getting married May 30). She is a lovely lady, and was diagnosed about a month ago with lung cancer (stage IIIA). She just began chemotherapy last Tuesday, and has been hospitalized from the amount of fluids she has lost (she is very nauseaus). It is heartbreaking to see her so ill.

    The other is the husband of a very good friend. They were married for 8 months when he was diagnosed with a rare kind of genetic cancer (a little over a year ago). It’s all over him – lung, spine, bones, kidneys. I saw him around Thanksgiving, and again a week ago at the hospital. I couldn’t believe how drastically different he looked. It was all I could do not to burst into tears (but I controlled my reaction…he told my fiance earlier that he doesn’t like people reacting badly when they see him, he knows how he looks). I just can’t imagine how he and my friend are coping.

    I want to help so much, but feel utterly inadaquate. I don’t know the right amount “checking in” I should be doing with my friend, or the right words to say to anyone. At this point I’m trying a balance of just showing up, visitng, talking about the “usual stuff” of things going on, and listening to what they are experiencing and their next steps. Is that about right? Is there anything else I should do?

    I appreciate your input, and congrautlations on your success.



  • After I got diagnosed (non-Hodgkin’s), I told anyone who asked: what you can do is come to make dinner for me. Four months into chemo, I see that asking something specific was wise; finding out who actually would apply heat to food in my kitchen was a different lesson.

    What not to say? Top on the list, are you nauseated? If I were, would you really want to know?

    Second? Your hair will grow back thicker and better than it was before. Really? You know this how? And what if I were perfectly happy with my original hair? Not to mention, do you know that you lose your hair everywhere? That’s not in the fine print on the go-to-chemo intro. Then again, so much isn’t.

  • David, I just discovered your blog and enjoyed it a lot.

    My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer last year and I’ve elected myself as her companion for all “activities” outside her house.

    We have endured endeless hours of chemo, we have had countless tests made everyweek, we have waited for hours for her doctors appointment, we have spent days at the hospital. Even though I’m not a cancer patient, I’ve been leeding a life of one. So it’s easy for me to conect to your history.

    It’s hard and I can’t imagine how people manage to go through such an ordeal and maintain sanity.Even after all these months I’m amazed to find laughter and joy at the hospital. Sometimes you see someone looking really bad, and then comes a smile. It is amazing.

    Well, your blog is really inspiring. I intend to read it all!
    I was really happy to hear that your was a happy history. That you got well and healthy.


  • what a great list…My son is heading into a stem cell transplant in a couple of days…2nd tour with Hodgkins..I especially like the….Well if you had to pick a cancer to get..this is the one you want….Really, no one wants cancer!!!Anyway love your list…Thanks for sharing Teri

  • At last sense!!! After my daughters cancer diagnosis 8 months ago, we have certainly found out who our friends are. I can relate to the ignoring, blanking, staring, comments about hair and the one that bugs me the most….fingers crossed!! We have had people compare it to their childs asthma, clicky hips and many others. Now after 8 months of horrendous treatments, operations before and after radiotherapy people are slowly getting in touch. It feels like now the hard work is nearly over and shes had clear scans (lets face it, its never over) they can get back in touch as it makes them feel less uncomfortable. I must admit i was very rude to a so called friend of 20 years last week, who has blanked both myself and my 17 year old daughter throughout treatments. At the beginning she even asked if she could stand on the doorstep if she popped round. So now im the bad guy, which is fine but after everything my daughter and family have battled this year i have got to the stage where i just dont care what they think of me. Thank you for putting everything into place and its not just us that have experienced such ignorants! Many thanks xx

  • I am a 2-time breast cancer survivor who now works for a small nonprofit organization as a writer. I am writing some literature that can be handed out to employees when we visit businesses, and one of the pieces I am writing is about what not to say or do to a cancer patient.

    Several months after cancer treatments and bilateral mastectomies, I made the decision to go through the almost two year and several surgeries process of breast reconstruction. When I confided this decision with a coworker, her response to me was, “why bother.”

    I was shocked by her response, and remember thinking, “this is some pretty big talk from a woman with two healthy breasts.”

    Anyway, great job on this blog and I sincerely wish you health and happiness.

  • Thank you for this list. I have recently informed one person that I have been diagnosed with bone cancer (Osteosarcoma, stage 2) and since the initial “I have bone cancer” conversation, he hasn’t once asked if I am OK, or even mentioned it.
    I am so very angry towards him for that and he’s totally let me down. I don’t need to be ignored and I am most certainly ot a leper either.

  • Thank you so much for your blog! I was diagnosed with the very rare EHE- Epitheliod Hemangioendothelioma ( the same type Kris Carr has).

    You hit upon great points, and I can add another!

    ” You don’t look sick”, is the worst thing I keep hearing!!
    Please people stop saying that!!

    • Haha love this blog.I just got the all clear and boy are they coming out of the woodwork.I guess they know i will be bumping into them soon enough.whats a good comeback to peopl who abandoned me as i was going thrugh NHL.Iv gone thru this shitty 18months i dont want to be bitter.one friend in particular really pissed me off gossiping etc.also I loved”you hae never looked better!”geez thanks I have cancer u turd!love &light to you all x

  • I cant say Thankyou enough for the info. I have a family member who was diagnosed a few months ago. She wants no one involved and wont give any info to even her sister ??? I cant understant what she is going thru, just dont understand wanting to go it alone. Is this normal? I think thos of us that arent in that situation just dont know what to do. If she wont even tell you any thing and wont let anyone visit, what should we do??? Please help,, any one,, We dont want to be doing or saying the wrong things. I already made the mistake and said Im here for you . Just to let you know, I would do any thing, just dont know what to do. Thankyou again for this site, I will pass it along to other family members. Good luck to all of you and thankyou for being honest.

  • Well here’s a funny one i felt bad for the guy. So i go to work(firefighter/paramedic) to talk to the boss to inform him whats going on, one of my co workers who i race mountain bikes with stoped me and asked, how are you? are your ok? people are asking me about you, are you dying, if so can i have your mountain bike. WOW WTF JUST HAPPENED. So i informed him i was just diagnosed with TC he didn’t believe me then when i said it again the look on his face was priceless, i have to say i havent been laughing a lot but this did.

  • Hello,

    I stumbled upon this blog.

    People say such foolish things but usually I roll my eyes, curse them under my breath and move on.

    What hurts is the friends I’ve lost. Everybody else (who have been amazing) tell me these people aren’t worth it anyway.

    It doesn’t hurt less I think. I wonder why some of my closest friends stopped talking to me. Yes, it is difficult and yes it is awkward -but to throw away a friendship?

    This isn’t contagious. And as frightening as it is – staying away from me doesn’t mean your life is guaranteed to be free of bad news.

    It breaks my heart.

    Hope you’re well.

    And the writing really helps.

    • I am going throught the exact thing right now. I am learning quickly who are the fair weather friends. One friend I thought I could count has turned into the Queen of Denial. She is so not there for me and it hurts as much as going through surgery and chemo.

  • I was diagnosed with stage 3B Breast Cancer about 3 weeks ago. I just started chemo last week so my husband was reading about chemo when he came across your blog. He turned me onto your blog because we both find it human and witty and very interesting! I really like this particular blog a lot; if I was to add to your list on “what not to say to a cancer patient” I would add not telling the cancer patient that their illness is causing others distress. My mom told me that she was now suffering from insomnia, anxiety, unable to sleep, focus etc. For some crazy reason hearing this didn’t make me feel better for sharing my diagnosis… Anyhow, kudos on documenting your emotions; very insightful!

  • I was actually looking for a blog about how to communicate to a cancer patient when I found your great blog. I have a family member diagnosed 2 years ago with multiple myeloma. Just wondered about depression in cancer patients. Whats the best thing to do or say?
    And what books did you find useful?

  • Thank you very much for this, it seems like I do all the dont’s and need to change. I am looking forward to you being a cancer survivor :)

  • Thank you everyone! I stumbled upon this blog this morning feeling so very alone. I am doing the chemo/radiation for triple negative breast cancer that was diagnosed early. I too have been ignored. By my ex boyfriend/co-owner of my house, my children’s father and my family. I find it preferable to go alone to my treatments than to deal with my brother asking me for “documentation” to verify that I have breast cancer. Or my mother blaming me silently (she is 78.) I have lost friends. I am ignored and my own darling 13 yr old pretends that I am fine. She is angry with me and I know she is a child but I hurt so much. It is so difficult to find the will to live when I’m told to bring in the trash cans, fold the laundry of my daughter “together,” be strong, all the while vomiting and dealing with massive migraines etc.
    What not to say? Get out of bed, I’m going through a lot too, be happy they caught it early, you’ll be done soon, can’t you just not do the treatments? Thanks for listening..

    • Hi Anita – that sounds like a terrible situation that you’re in, I’m so sorry. A lot of cancer centers offer free counseling to cancer patients – my mother and I were in it for most of the time I was I n treatment. You should look for your local cancer center and inquire – I think you’d find it very helpful.

  • Thank you David. To be honest, I have been so utterly overwhelmed with the treatments and being a single mother and still trying to do my small job that I had not thought of that. Thank you so much. Very idea I will look it up asap. Thanks so much.

  • Hi David, I am a writer currently working on a book about how to survive great loss, and am including a chapter on a young woman who survived Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was wondering if I might include your What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient in that chapter if I attributed it to your blog. Please let me know, thanks! Lindsey Townsend

  • Great list, and all so true. I have experienced it all. keep fighting, and ill say this meaning every word because ive walked in your shoes.(stage 4 colorectal cancer spreading to lungs and liver)
    if you need to vent, throw out thoughts, help with things a person can help with long distance. I will be happy to be there for you. I am now paying it forward with coversforchemo.com
    helping one chemo patient at a time.

  • Really glad to read all of these experiences, it helps to know that other people have had these experiences and not lost their sanity. a woman K, who stepped up and offered to do anything she could and offered specifics made all the difference in our lives during my husbands treatment. So many people offered to help but they had a long story about how difficult it would be to do what they had just offered. K told me they really don’t want to help so don’t waste your time waiting around for them, people who want to help you do, others just like the idea of thinking they are the kind of people who will help you.

  • Hi David,
    I spoke with my brother and his wife last night and don’t think I am going to bother with that anymore. I did my best to not freak out at him, but this is the gist of the conversation:

    Since the radiation was unsuccessful I am now looking at the possibility of surgery and/or chemo and I will lose my hair. He says, without missing a beat, I can just go get a wig. She chimes in that that is not the issue, that I have to focus on getting better.

    If I have to hear that comment one more time, I am going to wind up and punch someone….seriously. Duh, of course my life is more important…but I am allowed to grieve this loss. I have noticed the imbeciles who say I can get a “great wig” don’t offer to shave their head or even fathom the cost of wigs.

    I then went on to say that I haven’t told our father of the latest news because he takes it so bad. I said maybe it was because he too had the same cancer as me. My brother vented at me saying it wasn’t my father’s fault for me getting this cancer and cancer was not inherited. REally??? Cancer is not inherited?? I told him he didn’t hear what I said. I said maybe that’s why he takes it so bad and that yes, cancer is genetic.

    When I first told him about my cancer, he was more focused on a problem that he was having with his neighbors. He really didn’t say much by means of support.

    So, I will still be there for him for special occasions etc but as far as letting him know my prognosis…um…NO.

    Thanks for listening.

  • I was diagnosed a few months ago and have a brother and sister-in-law who live only a few hours away and have not been to visit. The sister-in-law does not even bother to call. I have called her myself twice! We are of a similar age and both have young children, so I would think she would be more empathetic, in terms of understanding my specific struggles during chemotherapy, taking care of the kids. Should I say something to her? I am so upset that she has not called me even after I called her. What could be the reason for this?

  • My coworker is not doing well… Hospice has been called. He is 58, has a wife, grown children.

    Is it insensitive to send flowers? Too funereal?

    The office staff wants to acknowledge him — let him know we’re thinking of him. I think he’s on IV or at least a restricted diet, so food basket is out. He is too ill for visitors. What’s the right thing to send?

    • For my dad
      .. who had lung cancer..my then 11yr old came up with the idea of a box of ‘essences’ and cotton tips.
      She would ask what he wanted ..peppermint and rum were favourites… dip the cotton bud and place it on his tongue.

      Took a couple of times to get the ‘strength’ right – appatently first was like curiously strong mints on STERIODS – but it was a small pleasure well received. :-)

  • “Waiting for the show I guess” haha. But you’re quite calm about it. I would probably swear and curse while writing my post.

    I would send you flowers, but I’m in South Korea and they’ll probably smell by the time they get there. What kind of flowers do you like, by the way?

  • Family of cancer patients get the same thing. My mother had stage 4 lymphoma and I felt that people, including my family, didn’t know how to deal with me.

    I would often get the’If there’s anything we can do…” thing but noone would babysit my three boys so I could visit mum when she was neutrapenic.

    People tended to avoid me but when they did talk to me I had to hear about every person they ever knew who had died.

    The worst was my ex who would say “Why does she always have to talk about her treatment! It’s so depressing.” Besides the fact that it’s all she has been doing recently, try actually living through it!

    During her very last days in hospital, I hated when people would say how she will pull through, we hope she gets better soon when they knew she was dying. I felt like a freakshow because everyone was always staring at us together, like they were judging our reactions and emotions.

    When she actually died I felt that my grief was very private and I wanted to keep it to myself. When around my family I blocked it out, changed the subject or made a joke. Someone actually said “It doesn’t even seem like you are sad at all”. What they don’t realise is it’s not like she was hit by a bus, we have been living with cancer for a very long time now. It was the saddest day of my life but I’m not going to wail and breakdown for everyone else. It’s like I want to keep it for my own. I don’t know if I am explaining it very well but there you go.

    It was good seeing your blog because now I don’t feel like I was imagining it or being paranoid.

  • How about “What’s the progosis?” Seriously, I have had countless people ask me this about my husband’s brain tumor. I don’t think people really know what they are asking when they say that.

  • I was recently diagnosed with thyroid carcinoma, and at the time of surgery it had spred to a couple of surrounding lymphnodes. Since surgery it seems my wife and kids seem to shun away from me. I am the bread winner so this makes me feel like ” you’re broken or defective” so we no longer need you. My wife’s words to me were “you are a big boy, you can take care of yourself” , makes a bad situation 10 x’s worse. I start radiation treatment soon too. Don’t tell people going thru this ” oh, they’ll give you a pill and you’ll be all fixed up”. Try to be supportive and give some positive words to help reassure all MIGHT be ok.

  • Brilliant, wish I’d seen this when I was diagnosed last year I would have sent it to everyone I told. I have a couple of personal favourites: “Oh well at least you won’t lose your hair” (my type of chemo didn’t have that side-effect).
    Yeah. so lucky. May lose life, but will stay hairy.

    Or the related: “oh, so your chemo/cancer is not that bad then” Yeah. Thats how you know someone is sick. How much hair they have.

    This is strongly related to the “oh well stay positive” mantra, from people who don’t even know what they mean by that. I know, cos I’ve asked them – what do you MEAN by that? What does staying positive actually involve? And what does it achieve? Ummmm. They don’t know. But it makes ’em feel better.

    Im fortunate to have lots of great support – but it is fun to laugh and share and see that other people – like me – have also experienced what not to say to a cancer patient.

    Thanks for the laugh!

    • Caro, I so know what you are saying. I DID lose my hair, but the stuff people would say – oh but you look good bald, or at least you have a nice shaped head. WTF? And yes, if I had to hear ‘you just need to stay positive’ one more time!!!! I can understand that people feel awkward and unsure of what to say, but seriously? The best reaction I got was from a friend that I had to inform by phone, and all she could say was “F****, you’re kidding me, OMG that sucks” you know what? that made me feel better than anything!

  • Just wanted to say thank you for this! Within the last five months, I’ve been diagnosed with two different types of cancer. I’m only 27 years old. Lately, I’ve taken to calling myself a double winner…haha. Not funny, really. But I feel like if anyone gets to make light of my own cancer, then it should be me, right? I will say that I’ve been pretty stunned by the reactions of others; and not usually in a good way. They seem to think that surgery without the need for chemo and radiation, strips me of my status as a “cancer patient”. Perhaps they should take that one up with my oncologist! I’ll be meeting with him for the first time, in just a couple of days…

  • I just found this page and don’t know how old it is, but I did want to add my two cents.

    I don’t know why people are surprised by the awkward responses they get when they tell others that they have cancer. The word cancer brings up many very negative connotations and so it is hard to even know what to say. Certainly when you are telling someone, I am sure that person feels obliged to respond somehow. It’s like getting kicked in the head and forcing yourself to act calmly and follow the appropriate protocol for “what to say after being kicked in the head.”

    Of course they are going to try to find the positive somehow because nobody is going to stand around saying “Oh, stage four? Well gee, that probably means they’ve caught the illness at an advanced stage and you’re really really sick…” It sounds much better to say “at least your hair won’t fall out!” doesn’t it?

    I have lost my father and stepfather to cancer and now my mother has just been diagnosed with a lymphoma. I’ve been through the gamut of people’s awkward reactions and how they behave in response to someone who they now know is sick. I do not blame friends who distance themselves as this is an act of both self-preservation and absolution from responsibility. I have had enough of having to take care of sick people in my own life that I would not be knocking down your door to babysit your children because you are now sick. I am only mentioning this because even though your illness is the world to you right now, other people have histories and families and their own issues to deal with as well. They probably mean to do well, but do not have the energy to carry through. Do not take it personally!

    Also, people may offer you help, but do you really ask for it? I have offered help to friends in bad situations, and they never actually call on me for it. If someone offers help, and you need it, ASK. I am sure those that love you will be happy to give you a hand.

    • I feel your reply edged into mean-spirited. Although I am very sorry so many of your family members have/had cancer, YOU YOURSELF do not, so your lecture is out of place.

      • I do understand what Jenn is saying and can’t agree it is mean-spirited. Many people do not have the inner resources to take on other peoples problems. It hurts, however, that they are not there for you, but each person has their limitations in their ability to help others and remain emotionally healthy enough to function in their own lives.

        • I think it is important to note that nobody *means* to be insensitive or say the wrong thing. We may not get it right- we offer unwanted words of optimism or encouragement or consolment. Or we try to not to make too much of a deal of it, or we focus too much on it, or we try to relate or we get scared. But there is no etiquette book for how to react to illness. The point is is that 99.99% of people respond with best intentions- to not upset you or to make you feel better. If there is indifference or insensitivity it is likely fear and concern, basically just poor communication skills. Most of us communicate the best we can. And if someone offers to do anything for you, please remember that again they are kind words of support even if somewhat disingenuous. Thank you for this list. Hopefully it will educate us all, but I just wanted to say please remember people’s reactions, good or bad, are said with best intentions, even if its not what is the best thing to say.

      • I find Jenn’s answer to be realistic – not mean. What makes her post a “lecture” and yours a “gem” of wisdom? I don’t have cancer, but my child does – so I get to hear what people say, or don’t say. Yes, situations are awkward – because it seems like a whole lot of people think that the world should be able to read their most intimate thoughts and feelings about their diagnosis. And about the “If you ever need anything…..” Speaking as the mother of a cancer patient – every one is different. Sometimes just the smell of flowers or certain foods can make someone vomit. And Jenn is correct – other people have responsibilities regardless of someone else’s cancer diagnosis. So ASK. An offer was made. Follow up and ASK. I did. My daughter was diagnosed over a holiday weekend. Grandmoms and close family and friends away – In shock, at the hospital with my husband and young son, I found the phone number of a neighbor in my purse. I called. I did not ask if she was busy. I bluntly and rather quickly explained that my 2 year old had brain cancer and my husband was going to drop off the 4 year old and when family could be reached and return from vacation (4-6 hours), someone would get him. I asked, “OK?”. I’m sure she was in shock as well as I was. She agreed and I hung up. I asked and asked and asked….(tip – spread out the “asking”). But don’t expect people to know what to do. They offered, give yourself a chance to figure out what you need. Bringing a casserole to feed the kids is only a help if the patient doesn’t smell it and vomit.

    • Just read your note and do not find you mean spirited. I think you have just been through a lot. Easy to judge someone but most of us don’t know what to say or do. My best friend was diagnosed with cancer when I was on a cruise. She told my children to tell me because it was bad. I came back with a terrible cold and laryngitis where I had to whisper to her on phone. I was contagious so could not go to see her. We Facebook (private) every day but very few people went to see her because they were terrified of exposing her to anything She was very open about her illness and became a learning experience for many. I think many of us live with. there must have been something I could have done except just saying I love you with all my heart and it has been such a blessing to have you in my life. My daughter didn’t want anyone to know about her cancer until there was no way of hiding it. A very close friend made both of them prayer shawls. She is Jewish, they were not but felt very blessed to have them. I also have my shawl made when I was ill. Precious thing for someone to make for you. Sure you don’t have to be Jewish to make them. My shawl has a little pocket with a Bible verse. Just a idea which meant a lot to us.

  • i’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer. i think it’s stage two, but i won’t know for another two weeks. i try talking to people i meet in the labs and i’ve been getting an idea of how chemo and radiation are gonna go. i’ve got a mentor though. this older couple, i am 54, he’s had it ten years, she helps him stay healthy, i run to them for advice whenever i not sure of what’s happening.

    my biggest shock, aside from the diagnosis, was seeing my own kid’s reactions. i am not sure what happened. they sort of cut me off for awhile and then later they came back with statements like, “You’ve always been a fighter.” Give me a break right? my oldest son has been helping me, but i get the feeling that if he wasn’t divorced he wouldn’t be here.

    talk about teaching your kids to be independent. i am just hoping i can keep my strength. i get mad at my kids, but they are adults now and it’s not their fault that i got sick.

    this whole cancer thing is throwing me off. some days all i do is think about it and some days i think i am gonna be alright. i keep reminding myself that i’ve got a good mentor to help me keep strong and that if my kids can’t be there that i just have to make it with the one that’s there.

    seems that if family can’t deal with this disease then that’s ok because they’re still my kids. all of these is gonna be easier when people start finding out, when the hairs gone. i’m sure there’s a lot of people out there that won’t say anything either because they don’t understand, or because they’re just happy thinking that i got what i deserved. Guess what though i’m a changing. sometimes we forget how worthy life is of us living it and i am planning on living. except this time i think i better start living it for myself and let everyone else live their own.

    i don’t how much is coming after the chemo, radiation, and surgery, but i know that i am getting another chance at living. it’s been worse living and waiting for hand-me-down i love yous from my kids. hand-me-downs because that’s what one gets after the husband, wife, or children get told first. one just sits around waiting and there’s nothing worse than living a life of worthless waiting.

  • I was diagnosed with melanoma on March 12, 2012. After I had my surgery scheduled for the 27th, I started telling people what I was going through. I had one person say, non-chalantly, “oh, my mother had skin cancer”, like it was no big deal. Actually, his mother had basil cell carcinoma, which is considerably less deadly than melanoma.

    I had surgery, in which they removed the mole from my back, leaving behind a 6 inch long scar, and they removed a sentinel lymph node from under my right arm. Unfortunately, the lymph node tested positive, so I had to go in for a 2nd surgery on April 17th. This one was much worse. They went in the same place under my arm, but this time they removed 28 lymph nodes. When I woke up after surgery, a nurse handed me something to sign, and my arm was too weak to hold the pen.

    I spent the next week with a tube sticking out of my side, which connected to a pouch that clipped onto my shirt, to collect the fluids draining out of the wound. It was several weeks before I had the arm strength to extend my arm over my head, and I was too weak to do much of anything physical. In addition, in order to keep the would from infecting, my then-fiance, now wife, would pour some powder on it several times a day.

    Throughout this experience, many of my friends and family were sending me gifts, or checking up on me every few days to see how I was doing. One notable exception was my oldest brother. Starting from a few days before the 2nd surgery, I did not hear a word from him for 3 weeks. He lives about a mile from me. Not once did he stop by, or make a phone call, text, or email to see how I was doing. When he eventually did call in mid-May, it was to see what was going on for mother’s day, which was later that week. At my parents’ house for mothers day, I mentioned to him that the next time an immediate family member has surgery for cancer, he might want to make a phone call. His exact words were, “I was busy”.

    To be sure, he was busy. During this period, he got a big promotion at his company, so he is now working directly for the company’s CFO. However, about a week after surgery, I was walking around my neighborhood to get some fresh air with my now-wife, and we ran into a friend, who is really my brother’s friend. He mentioned that he was out with my brother the previous weekend at a bar, and he asked my brother how I was doing. Apparently my brother, who I hadn’t heard a word from, told him I was doing ok.

    Just a few weeks ago, I got the results from the 2nd PET Scan I have done since May, and everything came back negative. As far as my health is concerned, everything seems to be going well. As far as my relationship with my brother is concerned, I don’t know if things will ever be the same. My other brother can be a pain in the ass, but I know he would be there if I needed him. I can’t say that about my oldest brother. We haven’t talked in months, since his wedding day, which he planned on my birthday, and somehow didn’t realize I might have an issue with that. I don’t even know if he knows I feel this way, but if he was too busy for me when I didn’t know if I was going to die, I can’t bring myself to make the effort to tell him to go fuck himself.

  • Thanks so much for this post.

    I don’t have cancer and haven’t had anyone close to me diagnosed with cancer. I am horribly awkward with saying the right things though and it’s really helpful to be able to read this post and the responses and know that if someone I know is diagnosed with Cancer I will be able to support them in a way that’s helpful.

  • Newly diagnosed. .. scared. … full of questions!

    This helped. .

    Thank you!

    • I try not even to tell people anymore if they don’t know. All I know is to stay positive and fight. It has been 6 1/2 months since my diagnosis. I have found it getting harder for me to say or accept I have cancer because I will not own it. Eat healthy and stay positive and if possible exercise.

    • LOL, try this one. After telling my daughter that I have kidney cancer and that I was going rent a motor home and park it outside the hospital till I was well enough to drive home after surgery. (Are you sitting down?) She said, “Well don’t think you’re coming here!”. WTF????? I did not ask for any help and never even mentioned coming to her home. This is after spending thousands of dollars on her family. Certainly I will AVOID her home from now on. Jeez!

      • I’m not sure which is the worst disease, the cancer itself, or the way “friends” and “loved ones” begin showing you their true colors!!!!

  • Hi. I am Steve. I posted on here July 15th. I thought I would give an update if that’s ok or allowed . . . . July 20th I received 100 mci of Radioactive Iodine 131I. On July 27th I had an uptake scan and it showed the cancer in the thyroid bed, surrounding tissue, local lymph nodes, sinus cavities, and saliva glands. I continue fighting and have blood work monthly. I still have people tell me ” oh, you had surgery so you’re cured” , wrong. My favorite is ” Are you losing weight? Why are your close so baggy? You look bad.” wrong. I so am glad I found this page by accident. Has anyone else had an uptake scan and it caused you hair to start falling out? 2013 will be better for us all.

  • Hi there!
    This is the first time I have ever posted anything on a blog, forum etc so exuse me if I don’t get the lingo. But I jus have to thank you for this post it is bang on, so much so that I’m goin to share it with everyone I know!I’ve recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and start chemo in a few weeks, I had non-hodgkins lymphoma 18 years ago and had chemo then so have an idea what is coming, your blog is brilliant- made me laugh!

  • I am a nurse, and feel so deeply for all of you who have not been nurtured and cared for in the most compassionate way. My sister has been newly diagnosed and I have been madly researching any site that can help me be a better support for her. I am sending many good wishes and prayers out into the universe for all feeling unwell, frightened or alone. Blessings on this supportive site and community.

  • I hear people say… Are you still smoking ? Yes… Because I’m stressed the hell out! I’ll quit just stop the pressure. I have enough to think about! In fact all I do is think! Why doesn’t anyone think about what they are doing to themselves before they ask me that? It’s not like we do not all have cells that go absolutely haywire… You could get it too… But then no one thinks it can happen to them… Sometimes the occasional beer or cig makes you feel like you used to… Normal. So before you ask, think… What do I do to myself that’s not good for my body… Alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, most food, medications, stress, being mean, unprotected sex!!,chemicals in our water supply, plastics, diet soda…. ( the list goes on)

    • If I were you, I would lie when people ask inappropriate, blaming questions like “Do you still smoke?”. People that rude have no right to the truth, AND they have no right to even ask you that question!!

      All the best to you. Hugs.

    • I hear you on the smoking! I was just diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer with mets to the bone and liver. I had a friend say “OmG! your still smoking ???” my reply was “Umm yea, what is it going to give me cancer ? “

  • And do not make fun of people or single them out and talk about them like they aren’t there when they feel like crap even a few months after treatment… Not feeling good or not remembering things can last … Long after treatment… Tamoxifen feels like chemo!! Most breast cancer ladies take tamoxifen for five years after treatment!!! DO NOT TELL THEM …”IT’S OVER!!.. GET OVER IT!” It’s far from over… Emotionally… Financially… Physically…etc

  • No 2 CANCER patients feel the same … Or go through the same things… Do not compare

    • Denise Olvera

      Very true!
      My sister believes all cancer patients/survivors she’s met are all happy!
      Well yes, I tell her they are happy because you have not seen the dark side of what cancer can do to one going through it and you will only see the happy side because they’ve either been done with their rollercoaster ride or have the daily support one needs.
      So yes No 2 Cancer patients feel the same or go through the same!

  • In October of 2012 my dad was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer with metastasis to the brain. He has more brain lesions than are countable. Three months later he is very ill. Radiation treatments have taken pieces of his personality and chemotherapy has taken everything else. Today is his final chemo treatment in this series and he may or may not have another. All treatment at this point is palliative. I read all of the above posts and I bet I have said at least 90% of them at one point or another to my dad. He is not going to get better. He will not survive this. He knows what he is looking at. I will be with him this afternoon at chemo, I am at all of his afternoons for chemo. He can’t eat, he can’t rest, he is miserable. Usually I sit with him and hold his hand while chatting about nonsense with my mom (who is going through each and every step with him). Just tell me what I say to this man who I love with every fiber of my soul that will make him feel better.

  • Hey,
    Thank you for posting this, I have a girlfriend who was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer, so I searched this and it came up. Glad I read it. I’m also relieved to find out that, even without reading it before, I didn’t say anything that shouldn’t have been said.

    But I have one question:

    It kind of relates to the guideline of a past family member with cancer. To be specific, my mother had ovarian cancer as well, diagnosed almost 18 years ago, and went into to give birth to me and my little sister, she’s still alive and very healthy today. Should I have not mentioned that?

    Your story has comforted me a lot, I’ve been reading a lot of survival stories as of late, so thanks a billion for sharing.

  • Jessneedsadvise

    Hello, Please help….. my father in law is in hospice at my house and everyone from my house is watching him 24/7. Im there to help him at night if he needs anything and lately he’s been talking to people that are not in the room. Should i tell him no one is in the room while he talks to them? (just a little bref his wife past away 5 years ago in the same condition that he is in and it was hard for all. recently he called her name 2 times while i’m watching him but i told him no one is in the room. Is this bad in my part or should i leave him saying things? please help me its very hard for me to understand this part of living this situation

    • Honestly, I would ask him questions about what he’s seeing. Cancer patient or not, most of us just want to be heard and to feel as though our loved ones understand where we’re coming from. What he sees is very real to him. Denial of its existence may do more harm than good. This doesn’t mean that you have to lie and say that you see it too. Just let him know that you’re interested in what he’s going through.

      • sylvia sanchez

        there isn’t much you can do to help people when they begin to reach the end. just do what you can. make them physically comfortable as you are doing now. don’t expect them to recognize you at all times. let them talk as much as they like during their waking hours. you really can’t stop them unless if you are willing to keep them medicated. the most important thing you can do is to let them know you are there. this can exhaust you unless if there are other people who can help. ask others to take turns sitting with the patient. it takes great effort to grip the reality that that person is leaving and you can’t stop them.

        the most important thing is be by their side. hold their hands, caress their faces, speak softly to them, and let them know you care.

        you will be alright. that’s the cycle of life.

  • My 16yo has been told there us a 5cm giant cell tumour in her knee. I am told its not enviromental/genetic as all but 1 of immediate family have passed from cancer in the last 5yrs so shes terrified. No matter how directly she asks about the odds she feels its minimised to the point of a lie? i know what not to say but wonder how best yo support her on this journey?

  • This is great advice for people who are not sure what to say. I have Stage 4 breast cancer. Although I have decided not to worry about the stupid things people say, because they just have no clue, my 2 least favorite comments are: “You are so skinny” and the comment after you tell them your prognosis is anywhere from 2- 10+ years – (all completely unknown) – “well, none of us has any idea how long we have”. That may be true but completely insensitive! It simply is NOT the same.

    • hi Karen, I to have stage 4 breast cancer and have heard almost the exact same thing !!! or I even got “well at least you have a couple years” or crazy stuff like that. Good luck to you.

  • Annette Leslie Williams

    I was diagnosed with cancer on October 18, 2012. Due to insurance issues, I did not have my surgery until February 6, 2013. I will be getting chemo and radiation therapy.

    The worst comment: “What is your prognosis?” … from a “minister friend”.

    You never say that to anyone. You never ask that question, for that is none of your damn business.

    I took that family friend off of my friend list. Did the same with a few more “friends”.

  • Wendy Jones

    At times like these friends and family are so important to be there to offer their support and encouragement. I can’t possibly know what others are going through but I can share my experiences hope this will help. I have actually found it really helpful to read other people’s stories that are going through this although I restrict myself to only reading blogs that are positive. I have taken comfort in knowing that I am not alone and so many women do get through this. I think that has been the key for me so far in sort of coming to terms with all of this. I think everyone’s experiences are different and everyone’s treatment is different as well but one thing is for sure we all probably share similar highs and lows of this experience. What has surprised me so far is just how many people you talk to that you have known for years that you never knew were once treated for cancer.
    So how did I find myself hearing those dreaded words of “it’s cancer”? I was always someone that never went to Doctors and friend’s repeatedly told me I needed to look after myself a little better. Of course I ignored them. I was in a pretty stressful job, working ridiculous hours, constantly exhausted and very unhappy and lost living in Melbourne. I look back now and wonder whether the 3 years of stress contributed to all of this – but I will never know. What I do now know is that I will never be in that position again and need to make sure I remain in a positive place free from negativity and with those I know love and support me.
    I found a lump back in July and finally saw a doctor in the August who said that it didn’t feel a “nasty” lump as it was soft and moved. She did advise me to go for a mammogram but literally the next day after seeing her I was made redundant so didn’t treat it as a priority – stupid I know but I have learnt not to beat myself up over that one. Anyway at Xmas it seemed to have grown quite a bit. I was still in denial as thought it was just a cyst. Anyway saw the doctors after Xmas went for all the tests and was told on the 29th Jan it was cancer. Surprisingly enough not caused through all the years of smoking!!! The medical team were just amazing and so fast in treating me. The worst was waiting to find out just how bad it was. I have to say that that was the worst part for me the not knowing and the little voice that seemed to be a constant noise of negativity and pessimism. I very quickly realised though that I couldn’t give in to that voice and have learnt that you can only deal with what you know now not what might be. Luckily though for me it had only spread to the lymph nodes.(6 out of the 12 removed and some lymph tissue) I never thought I would be delighted in being able to announce I had stage 2b grade 3 cancer but I was over the moon. The wait to see if it had spread beyond the lymph nodes was pretty hard and so I see myself as being incredibly lucky and fortunate. I had the diagnosis on the Tuesday and operated on the Friday. On the following Wednesday I got the news that they “had got it all” and there was no evidence of cancer elsewhere…phew. Actually I have to say it has all been good news after good news. I know that is hard to believe but it is true. It is amazing when you go through this that anything that is positive and in your favour you grab with both hands and celebrate. The norgs are still all in tact did not have to have a mastectomy and whilst they took out over 6cms you can hardly tell the difference. Have a few extra scars and had a port inserted but I reckon that would be a great opening line at some point in the future. Ok so I have lost my hair but it is so quick to get ready to go out and my hair is perfect due to a great wig I bought!! I have managed to keep hold of my eyebrows and eyelashes so far and in fact rather than the bushy caterpillar look I was prone to they look perfectly shaped = well they do for now!. No facial hair woo hoo!! No periods – a woman must have developed chemotherapy I am sure!! Being on the Chemo I am eating like a horse but not putting on weight the list goes on. I have been incredibly lucky with the chemo. I was prepared for the worst and expected the best. The only thing I can say and what helped me was knowing that whatever side effects I would have I knew they would pass and it wouldn’t be constant. I prepared myself by knowing that however bad it would be it would be short term and I would feel better as your body does go into recovery mode. Everything I had read indicated that whilst you don’t know how you are going to react generally the worst would be in that first week and then you do start to feel better –My only advise would be to always remember you will feel better and just to take each day as it comes. I know I have felt a little tired on day 3 or 4 post chemo, nothing major but I have to say when that has past I honestly feel great and know it is one more treatment that I can tick off the calendar.

    Everybody copes in different ways I seem to have be coping through humour and almost taking an approach of treating it like a common cold. Ridiculous I know because it is absolutely not something a few Lemsip and Paracetamol can fix but it works for me. Don’t get me wrong I have had my lows but I gave myself the rule of only one pity party per day and it could only last for 5 minutes. This seems to keep me in check and makes me focus on the positives and there are positives.

    The only sad part of the experience is that a very close friend of mine reacted awfully to me during all of this and became very negative towards me and so I made the decision to end that friendship as I didn’t need to be around negativity. I suppose some people find it hard to cope. I take great comfort in something that a friend said to me which was “the people that are meant to be in your life now, are…those that are not aren’t”

    I learnt very early on that people are going to say the most inappropriate things at times but for the majority their intentions are sincere and it comes from the heart – they just don’t always know the best way to say things or perhaps aren’t quite coping. I have learnt though it is better to explain to them straight away if something upsets me and explain how it makes me feel, why it makes me feel like that and explain what I need from them to help keep me positive and strong and I do need and value their support. I also make sure that they know I am not criticising them and that I know their intentions are sincere because I know they love me. I explain to them that we are all learning how to cope and deal with this. All of my friends (except one) have totally understood and I think felt better for it by being able to understand how I was feeling and how they can help me in the right way. I actually think it took away some of the tension of them not knowing what to do.

    Actually I have found my friends to be more upset over this than me but I suppose when you are going through this you just have to accept it, face it head on and deal with it. Yep it is much harder for other people I think because they just feel so helpless and they so want to help you.

    I will share with you some of my experiences of “what not to say or do to a cancer patient” and yes I do look back and laugh and see the funny side now but god was it annoying at the time.  Oh and yes we do have the right to be contradictory – we can make jokes as often as we like about our predicament but others may not!!

    Hope you all see the funny side

    1. Friend who always started off the conversation with – “It’s time you started looking after yourself” You don’t say!

    2. “You got the best cancer to get, better than lung or liver” No cancer is better than another

    3. “At least they got it early” But do you know I still have 5 years of treatment and without that have a 70% chance of getting secondary cancer

    4. “You can fight this you have the right attitude” so what happens when I have a bad day and not the right attitude?

    5. 6 days after being diagnosed and a few days after surgery having only seen only a few people “now don’t keep talking about your cancer to people because they will just switch off and get bored” Guess they were bored then.

    6. “I know what you’re going through I went through this with my friend” asking how her friend went I got the response “oh they got it too late” – Great!!! Said to me during the time I was waiting for scans to come back to see how far my cancer had spread.

    7. “all you need now is a pair of dungarees and you will really look the part” – friends comment after I had my hair cut really short

    8. “Every time I look over I have to keep reminding myself that there is a woman sat there and not a man” – another comment after I had my hair cut short

    9. “no the short hair looks great because you look more your age now, before with your bob you looked so much younger” Maybe I looked too young for my age before mmm?

    10. “oh are you having Epirubicin. I had that. God it was awful, I lost all my hair and eyebrows, put on 10kg and it didn’t work. I also felt really sick on it” – cancer patient talking to me whilst I am having my second session of chemotherapy

    11. “my friend had chemo and she would be in a foetal position for a week” – friend offering words of comfort the day before my first session of chemo

    12. “oh have you had your head shaved for charity” – nope this is for the real thing

    13. Nurse admitting me into hospital for breast cancer surgery for a lumpectomy and lymph node dissection “so you’re really fit and healthy then” – That would be debatable….

    14. “Have you still got your breasts” Yep and in all their glory!!

    15. “I would die if I had to have a mastectomy” And some people live because of it

    16. “what drugs are they putting you on?” “Epirubicin and cyclophosphamide” “uh oh………(Long pause)…….” Friend’s mother who has been through chemo offering me support and advice

    17. “That’s the hardest thing you have ever asked me to do. Never ever ask me to shave your head again” I am not planning on having to and yep it was pretty hard for me too

    18. “Now that you have a wig, does that mean you can’t throw your head back and laugh” Yes I did do a demo!

    I’ll give you all my acronyms as it is the done thing apparently so here you go
    DX Jan 29th 2013
    BC IDC ER+
    Operations – AND LUMP
    Chemo Drugs EC (4 sessions) followed by Taxol (12 sessions)

  • hai! when i was 3yrs old i had a kidney cancer and cured by removing the particular kidney. now am 24yrs old am living with one kidney only.by jesus grace i have completed my B.E&M.E.i am sure that this message wil give confident to some of them.one thing i request not to say dont hurt the patient by words by saying you are the cancer patient because of you your parents are suffering now. say them you can fight against the cancer you can come up.thank you may the lord bless us all………..

  • I posted my cancer blog and an excerpt that helped me relate to this article

    If I could make one recommendation to all my friends that have someone in their life battling cancer I would say this strongly, Educate yourself “read books on what NOT to say to someone fighting cancer or how to be supportive, there’s easily accessible information online”. Don’t allow ignorance to be the barrier between you and your loved one. It would be better in that case to stay away and just send cards or a little care package to cheer them up.

    The worst thing I ever heard from a girlfriend that I’m sure was said with good intentions to make me feel better was, and I quote…”Awe Shannon, look at it this way girl, you’ll have new boobs and look better than the rest of us”, she said it very dismissively, like I shouldn’t be worrying about anything (It was the day I told her I had breast cancer). Just an example of ignorance, it did not make me feel better at all!


  • It's Terminal

    After being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer out of the blue at 40 years old, I have seen the whole spectrum of human reactions to cancer, death and what we all must face: our ever-looming mortality. Some people honestly want to help and will pour their hearts out to me. Others will cook a dinner or make a surprise phone call. But all in all, I found that over time most just ignore me. People have an almost built in response to run from death and serious illness. At best you will receive some cheesey Hallmark sentiment before they disappear. I wish I had some better news to report. One thing that really pisses me off is when people ask me “so, what are you doing to keep busy during the day.” Never. Ever. Say that to someone with cancer or a terminal illness. It has to be the most sickening, nauseating hopeless question anyone can ever ask and I just want to die everytime I hear it.

  • I think the worst was my mom’s reaction when I told her I had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and Leukemia – “Oh I wouldn’t worry about it, you can live with it for a long time and it’s not serious”. WOW – my mom, no empathy as if I stubbed my toe and then proceeded to tell me about my sister’s medical issues. Hard to write a mom off your list, but definitely won’t rely on her for support :(

  • I can identify with you and with the folks who’ve posted here.
    Some people are just insensitive, as if they don’t even think about what they’re saying. Others are just shallow, selfish and calloused. I’ve just gone through breast cancer surgery, then 5 months later was diagnosed with uterine cancer (the two were not related, just coincidental)and had surgery for that. People’s comments or lack of any response at all is not surprising to me. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996 and got a lot of the same stuff. One supervisor at work told me that she understood that “you would want to work until you can’t walk anymore.” Well, I’m still walking! My husband was also diagnosed with cancer 2 years ago. Sometimes I don’t even want to bring up the latest issues because I think no one will even believe that a husband and wife can be diagnosed with cancer in the same 2 year period. In all this, I treasure those who have sent cards, made calls, etc. The smallest sincere gesture means so much! I rely on my faith in God, which has seen me through my experience with MS. Whatever happens, I know I am in His hands.

  • My boss has been battling cancer for well over a year. I know what type and stage and about bone mets not because he’s told but by accident. He will talk about his treatments some but doesn’t reveal much. I don’t want to be intrusive but do want him to know how very much I care. What to do?

    • I am a boss and I have cancer. The best thing is to take time to listen and to let your boss know you are here for him if he needs to vent.

  • I am three weeks cancer-free after a bout with stage 1c ovarian cancer. For me, the worst thing is when people say, “Well, you caught it early so they can cure it.” First of all, yes, I am incredibly lucky that my cancer was causing a great deal of pain, which sent me to the doctor. However, the fact it is an early stage does not mean it will never come back or is any less scary/stressful/painful. There is still a 20% chance I will be dead in 5 years or less. Maybe I should try telling people this and seeing if they would like those numbers for themselves. Again, I know these numbers are better than most, certainly better than most ovarian patients, but the point remains that death is simply a much more real possibility for survivors, no matter the stage or type of cancer.

    When people tell me their friend or relative has had chemo so “they know what it’s like” is also annoying. The only people who know what cancer, having parts of you surgically removed, and going through chemo is like are people who have been there in person. Friends and family are great (when they stick around), but they are spectators to your experience, not participants of it.

    • I would give my eye teeth to be stage 1c. I am 3c, had major surgery August 2nd and have been unable to start chemo because of an infection. My chances of living are now dropping by 5% each day that I cannot start treatments. All cancers and survivors are not the same either. I am insulted when someone who had breast cancer 20 years ago tells me that she understands. My girlfriend who is on Hospice now understands. She was 3c as well.

      The other thing that frosts me is that MANY have told me how much more beautiful I am now. I have lost 35 pounds and cut all of my long hair off. Thanks! I guess cancer, infections, muscle wasting and atrophy are more beautiful????

  • I found your blog by searching for why people are so insensitive when they learn someone’s parent has cancer. Even though your post was not aimed at me, it helped just to receive affirmation that people can be real jerks about it.

    My mother was just diagnosed with invasive, very aggressive breast cancer. I can count on one hand the people who have said they are sorry or expressed concern. But the people who ignore me are better than the others …

    I have been told the following in the past week:

    “Oh, my father has cancer, too! He has two weeks to live. I mean, I’m sorry but your mother isn’t even dying, so stop crying.”

    “God, you’re so dramatic.”

    “People’s parents die of cancer every day. Life goes on.”

    “I knew this guy who had cancer and he only lived like a month after he was diagnosed.”

    “My mother died of cancer in the hospital where yours is being treated.”

    “I’m sorry, but I have problems, too. I don’t have time to deal with yours.”

    “If she sees you crying, your negative attitude will make her more sick.”

    “Oh? So how long did they give her to live?”

    “Why can’t someone else take care of her? You have more important responsibilities.”

    “This is b.s.”

    “I guess now you’ll always be asking for time off work.”

    People have really amazed me this week. They didn’t have to say anything. They could have just hugged me if they didn’t know what to say.

  • sylvia sanchez

    i don’t see cancer the same way as i did back in october. back then i heard the word cancer and i thought i was going to die. i signed my land over to my son, i started thinking about funerals, and i asked everyone who had gone through treatment about their pains. i set myself up to give up and that was really hard. i felt bad and i looked really bad. now i am getting ready for the second round of chemo (this time it’s infusion with no radiation). However, i feel better because i am getting cured and a lot of the stuff that was eating me up inside has been taken out. i don’t read all those articles about how much life expectancy they calculate because i am the one living the experience. I am actually living this cancer experience and i am making it mine. my son says that whenever i get a chance i try to tell them as much as i can about the whole ordeal and that’s ok with me.

    I am not feeling bitter anymore just because i have cancer. i am thankful that i caught it in time and i am aware that it could come back, but meanwhile i am going to enjoy my new health and i am changing the things i want out of life. cancer for me means that my body was sick from the inside and i was smart enough to get treatment and stick to the regime. i am not going to deny that i have gone through thoughts of giving up, but through every step of treatment i learn.

    i think that anyone who has cancer has an obligation to teach about their type of cancer (i have to say though that children and teenagers with cancer are not obligated the same as adults) if people seem to ask silly questions about cancer it’s because they are not informed, i know that i wasn’t informed.

    the more people know about cancer,and the many options of treatments, the sooner people will learn to get checked. those of us with cancer can save a life other than our own by making people aware. if i had grown up knowing that i had to get checked early in my fifties i would have caught the polyps in their early non-cancerous stage. i didn’t, but my children and friends understand now. most importantly my grandchildren will grow up knowing that healthcare is not something you do when you get sick, but something you grow up doing through-out life. yes, i know that some cancer can’t be cured, but even those who can’t win can still save others.

    healthcare is not the same, it’s better. communication is not the same, it’s better. i am not going to say, “let’s live a cancer free life”, no, i am going to ask that we pass the knowledge because we have been empowered with the experience that only strong willed people can live.

    one last note: no matter how strong i may feel my heart will always go out to teens and small children with cancer. there is no worse pain than a small life cut short, so lets not complain, but enjoy, inform, and be thankful.

  • I came across this post and had to laugh…you say things in a much nicer way than I do ;) I wrote this post a couple weeks ago…mostly about breast cancer but you get the idea…good stuff you said :) http://22weeksandcancer.blogspot.com/2013/05/shut-f-up.html

  • Denise Olvera

    Thank you for your blog!
    I totally agree with your statement. I was diagnosed 5/23/12 with Breast Cancer StgIIA. I have family who really thinks everyday should be upbeat and no pain involved, when in reality having cancer changes mind body and spirit. Especially for me having lost a breast. I receive the stares from people as a sign of awareness that this to can happen to anyone. No on in my immediate family has cancer. I actually only found out because of an accident last year. God works in mysterious wsys.
    I truely like what was said to someone who has just got diagnosed with cancer. All true!! I have to share on my facebook status. Thank you!

  • Ok, I really mean it, I am willing to do anything for my neighbor dealing w metastatic colon cancer, and yes, I uttered the dreaded “if you need anything at all, please please tell me and I will be there”…. He and his wife are young and have no children, and I do not know them well enough to barge into their home and start cleaning things or grabbing laundry or mopping up puke.

    I will stock their house with all the food I can stir up, but how in the world to I know what he is able to palette this week? Do I get them restaurant certificates so they can order in? Do I send them home food service (like schwann’s) certificates so they can get stuff they want? Do I just go grocery shopping and leave it on their doorstep, hoping they like my selections? Do I finagle his mother’s number from somewhere and call her to get the info on what he can eat? I mean really, I do not know these people well but I have offered to drive him to chemo when she can’t do it and I have offered to do anything they might need if they can thing of it. I have every intention of following through, but I have never been poisoned and then told to find adequate food intake despite the sores and nausea and fatigue, so I really am having a hard time deciding *how* best to actually do it. Any input would be greatly appreciated.

    • I am on the other side of this question. People keep asking me what they can do. Some days I just don’t know.

      Food is the last thing I want delivered. Chemo changes taste buds and most food doesn’t taste good.

      Some people offered to pay for housecleaning or yard servives. That may be helpful for some folks versus food.

      I appreciate the calls just to see how I am doing. Maybe its an offer to walk my dog, pick up something at the store or take me to the doctor. One friend who has a child my son’s age just took them out to the movies for a few hours.

    • Caren, It seems like you really put a lot of thought into what you can offer. You’re right – buying food when you’re not sure what he can keep down is a waste. A gift card to a grocery that delivers sounds very thoughtful. Cut the grass when they are out of the house. You seem like a really thoughtful and kind person.

  • My mother in law couldn’t stop talking about the fact that we might have to file medical bankruptcy…I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t let that depressing financial bone go…Your blog rocks.

  • I LOVE IT that you wrote this: “• Do not talk about the alternative medicine that you read about in Crazy Monthly, that is sure to cure them of their disease. Don’t tell them that their treatment isn’t good for them, and that lot’s of people end up dying from the treatments, or that chemotherapy is just a big conspiracy between the government and the pharmaceutical companies, etc., etc. Don’t tell them how they got it. Just stop. They don’t need to hear about it.” Could NOT have said it better myself! HATE it when people do this to me!

  • My boyfriend of 10 years told me last week that I was milking this cancer thing. I had just gone through my second chemo treatment and shot, and was feeling really tired and achy (I drive myself to and from my chemo appointments). I had asked him if he could pick me up something to eat because I was having intense bone pain from the shot when he made the comment about milking the cancer. I dumped him immediately. He was not supportive or caring. His only concern was how was this going to affect our sex life.

    • My first impulse when I read this was to high-5 you. But then I realized that you must be heartbroken to lose a 10-year relationship in the middle of all this. I’m so sorry he couldn’t give you the understanding and support you need

      • Unfortunately this was the way he was behaving all through this. When I first discovered my mass in February 2013 and suspected it might be cancer, he told me I was being a drama queen. When it was confirmed to be cancer not just in one but two places, he told me to stop being a worrywart because no one really ever dies from cancer now days. He refused to listen to my fears or concerns and basically treated me like I was an inconvenience. I felt so alone and scared.

        • Betty, I think we are dating the same guy! Except I cut his sorry b*tt loose last week, and you can cut your abusive jerk loose, too. From one cancer patient to another, YOU DESERVE BETTER!

          • I cut him loose after the “milking this cancer thing” remark (three strikes, you’re out). I have discovered it made for a lot less stress in my life.

  • Thank you for this blog! I, amidst all of my own confusion and fear am trying to battle my family.. Large family.. Who either avoids my most recent news of my cancer or acts like I never said it or has all together stopped talking to me. It’s almost entertaining how my mother will ask about what the next steps are and when I start talking about the treatment that has been outlined she changes the subject to something else. The same is said for asking if I need anything. I have four children under the age of 9 and sometimes I am just so so tired but babysitting is too much to ask for because their lives are too busy. I only asked once. I find it most amusing that everyone including my husband walks around on eggshells like I’m already in the ground. I am still me, why can’t people see that? When I read this, every ‘do not ever say’ comment I related with een though this is a random blog I found on google… Thank you for in a small way letting me know I’m not alone.

  • I’m glad i found this blog and I’m hoping someone might have some advice for me.
    My husband of 23 years has a rare form of lymphoma cancer. He has just finished round 5 of an intense chemo program and has one to go. He will then have a bone marrow treatment as well. I know these treatments are getting harder and harder for him, and I do my best to support him in everyway I can. Over the last few days, he has become very angry with me, doesn’t want me near him, is yelling at me over the smallest of things, ignores me and says very mean comments etc… I stay as calm as I can, tell him how much i love him, and respect his wishes, as it’s his health that i’m most concerned about and want him to focus on. I’ve read enough to know that anger, especially directed at a loved one, is a common reaction when someone goes through cancer treatment. I’m focusing on staying strong, but really I’m not feeling so strong, I’m very worried and at a loss to know if I’m doing the right thing, or if I should be doing something differently.
    Does anyone have any advice you can give me, or do I simply just do as he asks, and hope that he will start to feel more positively towards me in good time?
    Over and out for now.

    • Hey charley,

      I’m really sorry to hear what you are going through with your husband, it must be really tough for you to cope with him acting in the way that he is with all the other emotions you will be trying to deal with on top of this.

      The only thing that I want to say is that although it might be your husband who is physically in front of you, in some ways, it’s not really him. I’m sure that in time to come, he will look back on this, see how he has been and regret it deeply. It isn’t his fault either, the treatment, his thoughts, the situation and the stress – they all add up on top of each other and take away some of the person that was there before. I don’t know about lymphoma but some hormones produced by cancer can affect the behaviour and emotions of those living with it. That doesn’t mean that he won’t come back though – maybe once his final treatment is over and he isn’t feeling so sick, you might be able to sit down and talk things through properly.

      I know that this must be a really tough time for you and you sound like you’re handling it brilliantly but remember to take some time for yourself and not to bottle things up. If you have good friends and family that you can talk things through with that would be great, maybe even visiting a support group for relatives of those who have cancer might help – its also good to talk to people who can understand where you are coming from and won’t judge.

      It’s sad but this is really common, I know three people who have been through treatment and at some point, all of them have ended up acting in the same way towards those they love, it’s nothing to do with you or how you are handling the situation. I think that the constant stress and physical illness maybe make you think and act in a similar way to people with depression, in that you lose sight and perspective of the way your actions affect those around you. I know that with my friends that in the bad times, it’s also brought up problems they have faced in the past as a couple but thought they had gotten over, if that makes sense.

      Once the chemo is over and some of the sickness and stress passes, you will probably find that you start to see more of the person you love again. I know it won’t be easy but just try to keep supporting him but remember to take time out if it all becomes too much.

      Am thinking of you.

      Katie x

    • Sadly, hurting people HURT… people.

      Its hard not to take it personal.

      Stay strong girl :-)

  • Thank you very much for the website. I am traveling overseas today to see a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer. She doesn’t know that I know. I am usually quite blunt but I want to be sensitive and not say something inappropriate. I still don’t know how I will react when we are face to face but you site has made me conscious of some things not to say. Thank you.

  • Am Antonio Benard i reside in Italy, my wife was suffering from breast cancer and the doctor told me that there was nothing that he could do to save my beloved wife. Then a friend told me about the Rick Simpson hemp oil that can cure cancer, i told him that my wife’s breast cancer was in the last stage that i don’t think the hemp oil would cure it and he persuaded me to try it, for the love of my wife, i decided to give it a try.
    I did some research and i found a doctor who helped me with the cannabis oil to cure my wife’s breast cancer and he assured me that after 4 months the cancer would be gone. thomasmedicalservice@gmail.com
    I bought it and she used it,it worked exactly as the doctor prescribed it. Thanks to doctor Thomas for taking away sorrow in my life. can you all imagine, that my wife have a 6 years old daughter and a 3 years old son, what would i have done.. God will bless Rick Simpson and Dr. Thomas for helping me with cannabis oil and for his support and care.
    contact: thomasmedicalservice@gmail.com what can i say unto my LORD, all i have to say is THANK YOU LORD.

  • Hey, thanks for your blog, it’s helpful. My mum has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and I’ve seen a range of responses including a few of those you’ve listed. As much as I can empathise with my mum and a lot of the people who have commented, the truth is that most people just panic. It’s scary and shocking news to be told and although there’s nothing wrong with hoping for an gentle, kind and considered response, expecting one is insane. People are strange creatures, try not to take it personally.

    Just last week, my mum and I were in the supermarket and I wandered off to find an item. On my way back I saw her talking to a stranger and realised she was telling him about her diagnosis. I (briefly forgetting the difference between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ humour) said ‘bloody hell mother, you wheeling out the sob stories again’. She burst out laughing but when we turned to look at her friend it took just a seconds glance to remind me that people feel genuinely and deeply uncomfortable with what they are being told and the situation they are in. He reminded me of a rabbit caught in the headlines, or an interviewee who has been asked a really difficult question, bless him.

    On top of this, we all want different types of responses, some people want comfort and sympathy, others would prefer for it to be acknowledged but then moved on from quickly, they don’t want to dwell. It’s a minefield for the person being given the news, it might not be very sensitive but no wonder they say stupid things or run a mile. It’s hardly comparative but when a friend told me her cat had died, I burst out laughing. Not because I’m cruel or insensitive, or that i found it even remotely funny but from pure panic. I’ve lost pets myself and know how traumatic it can be but I literally had no control, it was out there before I’d even thought about it. It’s no wonder people say daft things to news which can be even more shocking.

    And as for the friends who disappear – I do wonder if some of them would prefer to deal with these things with family and very privately and therefore assume others will be the same.

    There are always different perspectives and reasons why people act the way they do and as much as it can feel like a huge insult or blow, it’s rarely personal.

  • Hi I myself is breast cancer patient. I just had my second Chemo treatment. My first chemo was unbelievable. I did not get any of the side effects, I did not change a bit, but after a week I noticed that my appetite grew that there are times I crave for food. Since i live on my own, I cook for myself and I cook like for two people servings and believe it or not it is still not enough at times. But one thing worrying is that I do not gain weight,besides it is getting lesser day by day. I just finished my second chemo treatment. They told me to be careful cause my blood count is getting so low. I ask them what can I do to boost the blood count. the answer is nothing if it is low it is low. The second treatment is not happy at all it makes me feel nausea, tired and so sleepy. When i was first diagnosed and have surgery, I have an older sister whose so is a film director and I look after this boy when he was still little for his mom is unable to look after him. Until he calls me mommy. I was not yet married then. He gets used to call me mommy until now and he treats me as one. When my sister told him that he will pay me a visit.And they might make a movie in here. I said , “oh that will be nice, I might take a part in the movie.” Her answer is “oh yes, you will be the monster for they are making a horror movie.” Then she even suggested me to sell all my properties in a very low amount and told me to enjoy the money as long as I am leaving, for I don’t know until when will I be. And all that she boast is going to very rich people’s party. But anyway I think that is people’s nature. We cannot change them. And I still have lots of friends beside me doing very good things for me.But being on my own in the house, makes me move, rather than people come in here doing things for me. But I believe prayers and talking to God is the best thing I can do to pass this thing. Cause Every time I ask he answers me in a positive way. Just be positive, thank everyday that comes into our life. Looking forward to this blog and check for new posts.It has help me a lot reading all your letters.

    • I am about to begin my breast cancer treatment process. Yours was the 1st blog I have read that was uplifting. Maybe I won’t be in all the pain I have built up in my mind .. I am going to battle this disease to the end .. Amen

  • Here’s a good one not to ask—-

    Diagnosed with breast cancer and someone will ask which breast. Really????? Why on Earth would that be of value to know?

    • I had that one the other week and also on more than one occasion “oh you didn’t have a mastectomy, I assumed you would have had what with having breast cancer”

  • What NOT to say to a fantastic and loving caregiver: We think dad should go to Grandmas for the duration of his chemo (18 weeks to 6 months). This was said to me 15 minutes after hearing that my hubbyś lymphoma was now aggressive. At least let he and I process the news before you tell me you think I suck and your 80 yo grandma can do better! And just how does one respond to that? I simply told them (his 3 daughters and mother AKA Grandma) it would be his decision not mine and they were welcome to speak to HIM about it.

  • My dad was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia this past January. I am 25 years old, he is 68. I visited him during each stay in the hospital when he was inpatient. I’ve been with him twice to outpatient chemo days, during which we watched marathons of crime shows, and had longer talks than we’ve probably ever had throughout my life. I know that the cancer is HIS, not mine, but the pain that I feel, HE will never understand either.

    He told me today that while he appreciates my company, he prefers to go to treatment alone. “Everyone understands me there,” he says.

    The pain that the family members feel should be validated, not brushed aside as insignificant, simply because we are not ill too.

  • I realize that my earlier post probably doesn’t have an appropriate place on this forum, and so I promptly regretted submitting it. It is just so hard to be shut out by my dad and his illness.

  • Hi! I was diagnose with breast cancer 1 year ago, I am 28 years old!!! there are a lot of things that people do and say that I find ignorant …. however this one is the worst: “You shouldn’t worry about if it will come back, we could all die tomorrow and we don’t all sit here and fear it, letting it take over our lives” …. something along those lines???? Am I the only one that feels angry with this comment?

  • thank you for this site!
    i just started chemo last week and proper pain management was not mentioned by any of my doctors,not breast surgeon,plastic surgeon and not by oncologist, which i have alot of anger about. i am tired of docs sugarcoating the procedures and i almost ended up at the er tonite from severe muscle spasms/bone pain/diahrrea spasms tonite, until i realized my pain is not being managed properly. i should not have to take pills from family members for symptom management! this is ridiculous. oncologist getting notified first thing in am!! thanks your blog is a lifesaver! i didnt know people can die from chemo!
    god bless you

  • When I was 2 years old I was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. I actually had 2 types of cancer in 1 tumor. Unfavorable Wilms tumor and favorable rhabdomyosarcoma. A few days ago at school one of my friends asked me why I was so small and I told him I was a cancer survivor and that the chemotherapy, radiation, and removal of my left kidney might have affected my growth. He did not believe that I had had cancer so I pulled up my shirt and showed him my scar. He proceeded to say, “You should have just let yourself die, you freak!” I think (and hope) he was joking but it still hurt badly.

  • Hi David,

    Thanks for the insight.

    Was reading through your blog because my husband was just diagnosed with lung cancer and I recently found out about it. He was so afraid that it will burden me and only told me about it after he went through 6 weeks of radiotherapy.

    Now, he has another 3 weeks of therapy to go through.. And he doesn’t want me to go with him for treatments and would rather go alone. I worry for him and wonder is this a normal reaction for cancer patients to go through? What are your thoughts on this?

  • Just got diagnosed with colon cancer yesterday. I’m still in a fog about it all. My daughter (32) said the worst thing possible, which was… well you had better make a will and did you want cremation or burial! I was so stunned, don’t know how she could be so cold and insensitive.

  • This is a wonderful and very true list. I have not battled cancer myself, but my best friend had an autoimmune disease blood disorder (non cancerous, but similar in effect to leukemia), and I would get so angry watching others disappear when they found out she was sick, treat her poorly, give some saccharine “it’s all going to be okay” BS, etc. One “friend” for whom she was a bridesmaid even cut her out of all of her wedding photos because she had to leave half way through the reception to be admitted to the hospital!!! I didn’t and still don’t understand how people could be so thoughtless, disloyal, and shallow. When my friend succumbed to her illness last year, I found that many of these same do’s and don’ts apply to approaching a grieving person. I lost someone who had been like a sister for 13 years, and people ignored it, changed the subject, asked me, a month later “oh you’re still dealing with that?”, and/or gave me BS platitudes about better places. F that. I’m all for finding the positivity in the loss wherever I can, but don’t tell me it’s better this way! It would be better if my friend were alive and well.

    This being said, I do confess once, when I was a young 20-something and stupid, to committing the “most cancer patients die of chemo” infraction. I know many previously stage 3 &4 cancer survivors who got well using a macrobiotic diet. Now, that doesn’t mean that approach is right for everyone, but when my now-ex boyfriend’s grandmother was diagnosed, his mother was fighting with her about treatment, etc. I stupidly misread this as an opportunity to help & stepped way over the line, promoting macrobiotics & citing the chemo being the worse killer thing. Even though my intentions were good, the second the words left my mouth, I felt like an insensitive idiot. I apologized & removed myself from the conversation. The silver lining at least is that the embarrassment & regret I felt taught me that listening & responding is the way to handle difficult conversation. Now, I’m happy to talk about macrobiotics with people who ASK. But never ever ever offer that “advice” unsolicited & NEVER talk about probability of death from any treatment. EVER.

  • I have an old friend I love dearly that I have not seen in years. We keep in touch here and the last few years via FB. She had a run in with a crazy family member of mine debating a very controversial topic on my FB page. I had a houseful of loud kids when I received a text from my mom letting me know there was a debate brewing on a topic I posted. My 70 uncle is one to try to get a rise out of people and debate topics. I quickly sent a text to my friend apologizing for the inappropriate remarks. We chatted a bit and she told me what was going on. I fear I said all the wrong things out of shock. I just told her I loved her and I was crying. I cringe at some of the responses I made as it was all via chat. Sharing that my husband had been though some difficult health crisis this year (He had a PE). I recently wrote her again, just letting her know I missed her and how much our friendship means to me. She wrote back telling me about some of the things she is going through. I wasn’t sure how to respond to them. I chit chatted about some of the stuff I was going through to make conversation and asked her how her family was. We were very close as teenagers and very into fashion. She mentioned she can’t wait to get her hair back and have some of those cute short cuts some of the celebrities are wearing. I sent her a couple of photos and told her she would look great with short hair. Is this all ok? I’m trying to be myself and be supportive. Am I doing it all wrong?

  • Willie Johnston

    My husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the week of my mothers death. We have gone through a bout with jaundice and a stent implanted,chemo, whipple surgery, chemo, CAT scans for a solid year. We got the best news four days before our 50th wedding anniversary, that it looked like all the above treatments worked and that at this time he was cancer free. (85% chance of coming back). This is an insidious disease.

    Notice I said WE throughout the first paragraph, he incured the phisical aspects of treatment, we both endured the emotional aspects. As his prime caregiver I had to be UP all the time to make sure he did not feel any worse than he already did. There were times when we should have been closer when he was at his nastiest. I tried not to take it personal, but………!

    The four children were and are great, they have been really supportive of their father. Myself, they have always seen me as the strong type that would help with all their problems. No one ever said “how are you doing Mom”. I’m the one who had to call all the realitives and children to let them know about his cancer. My family has been amazing, with cards, treats and beverages that he liked during recovery, coming and cooking or taking us out to eat, visiting and calling. His family on the other hand calls and his sister came to visit, but she is not well and I had to wait on her.

    What I’m getting at is not a pity party, but to let people know that not only caregivers are tired and under appreciated, but spouses get all of that, but what i call “the cancer talking” also. I get that they are in pain, that they are worried, afraid, but spouses are overworked, emotionally damaged,and what the future will hold for them if they don’t survive. The “getting the affairs in order” was emotionally depleting.

    Since we were first time cancer patients we made a few mistakes, but we learned from them, and if we have to do this again we will be kinder and gentler with each others emotions. We can talk about it now, and we are back to our comfortable selfs, but we do not take life for granted, we savor every moment we are together.

  • So let me make sure I have this straight…even though you folks are indeed ill and I pray for all of you, I really do…but it appears that no matter WHAT we say (family and friends)…NOTHING is right? As selfish as you find us, I find you as selfish, maybe even more. Please don’t forget it is hard for us to say ‘the right thing’ in the midst of such an uncomfortable subject. The most important point should be that we at least TRY. As Unfair as your illness is, I think it is EQUALLY Unfair to judge ANY and EVERY thing someone says to you. And that is what you are all doing. What is wrong with seeing it for what it REALLY is…trying to speak about an illness that makes conversation in general uneasy. By criticizing anyone and everyone that tries to talk about it with you is basically saying you would rather be left alone. Be careful what you wish for. Is there anyone out there that is grateful for the neighbor, co-worker or family member that ‘may not say the right thing’ but thankful that they are there just the same?

  • I told my best friend of 35 years my diagnosis of stage 3 colorectal cancer – that was the big mistake. She ignored me for the next three months – no email, no phone call, no “Get Well Card”. I was extremely ill with the effects of radiation and chemo therapy together.

    When eventually she wanted to contact me again, I was in the hospital. She couldn’t work out why I refused to see her. When I was strong enough I emailed her and told her that she had let me down, and she admitted it, and begged forgiveness. I did forgive her, but it was a mistake – the first time I saw her – which was when I was still having chemo therapy, she told me that I was lucky to have cancer because I got to stay home from work????????

    What is wrong with people???

  • My best friend is about to start chemo and is having a head-shaving soiree this weekend. A couple of us have discussed shaving our heads in solidarity, but I’m trying to find out how chemo patients feel about that. Specifically, if someone did that for you, were you appreciative/did it help? Or were you even more sad that they were now “suffering” with you and your bald head reminds them of how they look? I’ve found comments from chemo patients who are glad their friends and family DIDN’T shave their heads, but I think that could be a way of saying “it’s okay/better that they didn’t” rather than hearing from someone whose friends/family DID do this. Any input?

    • I personally didn’t appreciate one of my good friends shaving her head, and my aunt. My mom wanted to do it and I was comfortable enough to tell her I didn’t want her to. We are only going to look at them and be reminded even more……and feel bad about it. Shaving your head isn’t fun. Sure it looks cool at first, but it’s the awkward growing stages thereafter that are really frustrating and make you feel unattractive. Why make anyone else go through this if they don’t have to….you will only feel like you owe them and when you go through cancer, you feel like you have nothing to offer to the world. Hope that makes sense. But everyone is different.

  • Since my 2012 diagnosis of kidney cancer (renal cell carcinoma), every “friend” I have (or had) has bailed on me and no longer has anything to do with me! My diagnosis was in early December, 2012, my kidney removal surgery was May 7, 2013, and I haven’t heard from anyone since June, 2013! I suppose in their minds, avoiding me like the plague is their idea of “helping” me! Some help! Not one visitor while in the hospital, not one visitor after being discharged. Ironically, the very people who bailed on me were the very first ones I told about my diagnosis. Or tried to tell, I should say. The instant I mentioned kidney removal, he and his wife interrupted, cut me off, and proceeded with “Oh well, so-and-so has only one kidney, and such-and-such has only one kidney, and yada yada has only one kidney, and blah blah has only one kidney, and what’s-his-name has only one kidney, and what’s-her-name has only one kidney, and on and on the “one kidney routine” went! With every name they mentioned, they were dismissing and trivializing my situation. News flash folks, I happen to be fully aware that there are people on earth with one kidney, so reminding me is not only unnecessary, it is very insulting! The really disturbing thing about everyone bailing on me is the fact that these are people I’ve known since high school, and I graduated high school in 1974! (So much for “a friend in need”!) As if that weren’t enough, one of these “friends” is notorious for bombarding you with advice, regardless of whether you want or need it! The very first piece of advice he unloaded on me was to “get all my affairs in order”! My particular type of cancer was caught early enough to not be life threatening, yet here this guy is already shoveling the dirt! In my book, telling a newly diagnosed cancer patient to get your affairs in order should be at the top of the list of what NOT to say!

  • Well, once again I can see WHY some friends and family ‘bail’ on you as you are all complaining about! They KNOW that anything they say or do will be scrutinized, It is not easy for the family and friends either. They are not the ‘enemy’ here. Between truly NOT knowing what to say and you all analyzing everything, it’s no wonder some folks ‘disappear’.

    • Whoa Tracy,
      With hostility THAT palpable how could you not be perceived as another ‘enemy’?
      In this World FULL of entitled people, it pretty much comes down to ‘its NOT all about YOU’!! Its about a personal fight with your worst adversary… not about how your desires arent being met.
      If you dont wanna be there cos its to hard for you… then just GO…dont shift the blame to those fighting the fight. We would ALL appreciate that level of honesty.. but still have a right to feel disillusioned as many would have supported yhose who choose to leave if the cards had been dealt different.
      Instead of being concerned with the pettiness of being scrutinised how about just being quiet and LISTENING WITHOUT JUDGEMENT.

      • Why not be quiet and listen??? Because you would find fault in that! Read the previous entries. There is NOTHING a person could do that would be ‘right’. I think it’s a shame that anything and everything is polished with a fine tooth comb for ‘political correctness’. BS! The friend or family member is as upset as you are…they just don’t know how to convey it on ‘your’ terms. You all act as if you are in a ‘clique’ against friends and family members…almost as if you are blaming them for your diagnosis. I just feel sorry for the majority that are really at a loss for words and that BECAUSE of it, may say something that isn’t perfect. Give them a break too, huh???

        • Hey all. I think there are two sides to consider. Dealing with society after a cancer diagnosis is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to deal with in my life and no one will ever understand unless they go through it. I was diagnosed at 27 years old and am now 29……so no one will likely ever be on the same page as me because even cancer at 50 is different. I believe it is very difficult for the people around you……but the person dealing with the cancer who has their life threatened does not deserve to be the bad guy because they have cancer and just because people don’t know what to say or do. Still not an excuse to not be there. They are just taking the easy way out. When you are going through cancer, you need to feel the love. So if you can’t be there, at least have the guts to call the person or e-mail them to see how they are doing and let them know that although hit’s hard for you, you are thinking about them. And do something to show it. That’s how you know who really wants to be in your life.

        • Tracy, I agree with you. Just look at the title of the article. As if the author is the “all-knowing” cancer patient. The only person who could possibly come up with things NOT to say. The article isn’t even very clever. And while some of those statements are tacky, you are correct in that some people just don’t know what to say. My daughter was disagnosed with a rare brain tumor at age 2. So I am not part of the exclusive “chemo clique”, but I get to hold her down while nurses stick IVs in her feet when there are no more viable veins. I get to say sure, let’s try the surgery that might paralyze her. And people have said dumb things, but I can tell they want to help. As for the people who offer help…..you actually have to call and tell them what to do – want your house cleaned while you’re in-patient? Call someone who offered. A whole lot of angry cancer patients, but no one thinks to tell the person offending them? Why not? It is tacky to tell a breast cancer patient that reconstructive surgery is available, but on the other hand, my daughter can’t have a “reconstructed” brain.

  • What a great site.. I was wondering if someone could guide me through a situation I have left far too long to do something about? My kids a few years ago would go play at a friends house until there was a change of schools and they grew apart. I occasionally saw the mum randomly now and then. I learned of the Dads inoperable brain tumour over 12 months ago and have followed his progress via his wife’s Facebook page. My wife offered support etc when diagnosed, but being a bit anti-facebook I never sent any messages of support. This isn’t to say that I didn’t want to, weeks turned into months and now it has been way too long and I don’t know how to go about offering support and apologizing for being absent and insensitive. I think of him and his family all the time and kick myself for not contacting them. Please help!

  • Michael Mills

    When it comes to the “what not to say” list, I am amazed that no one has yet to mention the most irritating, frustrating, and patronizing remark of all. The ever-popular: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”

    • I feel your pain! Just yesterday one of my best gal pals wrote: “If you are positive, positive things will follow!”…….NO CLUE.

      • Once again…no matter what anyone says to you, it is always wrong. It is so sad that everyone needs to be ‘politically correct’. It’s real easy for us to say EXACTLY what YOU would have us say. Instead of realizing that it might just be hard for us too. I feel bad about your diagnoses, but I don’t feel sorry for what you expect of people.

        • The reality is that we don’t know what will follow, so people shouldn’t make it seem like we are having negative things happen because we aren’t positive…….positivity doesn’t cure cancer and no one knows what the future will bring therefore we shouldn’t say that everything will be fine if we are positive.

          • and no, whatever people say isn’t wrong. I have friends that are very sensitive and good to me that I have no issue with what they say. It is true that it’s hard for everyone, never said it wasn’t. People just need to listen and validate, that’s ALL. I have no expectations of people. You don’t know me. I’m allowed to be defensive about what my friend says to me about cancer, because I’m the one going through it and the only one who will ever feel this, at such a young age. Don’t judge. It’s easier for the ones not going through it.

  • It isn’t just the lay folks who utter stupid, just had mo’s medical asst say to my face “so you decided to have a madtectomy?” My response was what were my choices, did not realize there were any after the idc diagnosis following the biopsy/mri/us/mamo then wire guided lumpectomy that returned infiltrated positive margins……wanted so bad to bite off the head and spit down the neck!! The idiot then said well that was probably a poor choice of words but I just meant you had a total mastectomy. Idiots!!! Have had many kind, compassionate medicals – but there are also idiots. You’d think of all people they’d be the knowing—-

  • I remember being with my mother during her last days / hours, two years ago. I know while she couldn;t communicate she was quite capable of hearing every word that was said in the room. My eldest brother made a comment, an attempt at a joke, “well at least you still have your hair”…. I didnt say anything just mortified. Yet I’ll never forgive him / nor talk to him for that statement. Tactless, stupid and deeply hurtful.

  • My son had Hodgkins when he was 5, he responded well and was in remission. I was told by a doctor very positively that the chances of relapse with Lymphoma were a mere .3% so I should rest assured and that my son would lead a very healthy life and would live to be an old man. I don’t know why but I really took this on, really believed it.
    We had a wonderful year in remission and took my son to Eurodisney. We just started to forget the pain and trauma of chemo and the side effects of prednisalone. It was a real big shock when I found out he relapsed just under 2 years into remission.
    We were in hospital where he had to have a drip on him for 24-7 for a whole week. This was very very difficult because he literally had to go to the toilet every 1.5 hours, be it day or night for the entire week. As he is mildly autistic and was only 7, I had to wake up each time and rush him to the toilet.
    Anyway, I was trying to keep myself from falling into depression, I was in shock that this was all happening again..I was in the hosital kitchen. There were some visitors there for another cancer patient. They began making small talk with me and asked me about my child. When they heard that it was not the first time that my son had the cancer, they said ‘Oh thats alright then. Thats not so bad because he’s had it before. My nephew has got it for the first time, its really sad and a big shock’.
    I understand that it may be a big shock for someone to be diagnosed for the first time, but I was really really hurt. Finding out your young child has relapsed is also very very hard to deal with. Especially when you were told that there was 99.7% chances that he would NOT relapse.
    On a separate note, it is so so shocking at how some people behave when tragedy hits a family member or a close friend. My own mother acted very strangely when I was most needy of help, and some friends really did not get it.

  • Hi David,

    My partner told me yesterday that he had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. I burst into tears and just cant stop the crying. I want to be there for him at all times but feel that my crying will only make him feel worse. Please help .


  • Thank you for this. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October, and I’ve been so stunned by people in good ways, but mostly bad.

    I set up a Caring Bridge page, and almost no one outside of my mother, sister-in-law or husband reads it. Most of the friends who know don’t write, don’t call, don’t ask how I am, don’t write back to my emails asking how THEY are.

    I get that everyone is busy and distracted, but this isn’t some little problem I can muddle through on my own. How does one get so busy that there’s no time to wonder about your friend with cancer, to reach out and say hello?

    I feel so lonely and unsupported, and in my darker moments, I wonder what I’m fighting for, since people are so apathetic about it all anyway.

    If anyone else who has a friend with cancer is reading this, please don’t ignore them. Please. Just say you’re thinking about them.

    It’s such a scary time, and feeling like no one really cares is as bad as the cancer itself in my mind.

  • Michael O'Hagenmo

    I am a terminal patient. I will tell you this very important part of speaking with a cancer patient. Leave God out of it unless they bring it up. Second if you intend to relate your experience make sure it’s about your personal experience or someone very close to you spouse close family member. When you do that you have just invited into your family and that makes us feel important to you. Never say yea a guy I play pool with at the bar has cancer. I will walk away without even saying goodbye. Remember allot of us have limited time and not to be mean but we try to keep it on as personal a level as possible. And at the start listen closely and you will know right away if we want to talk. We all know your intentions are sincere and from the heart but remember we have these conversations daily and sometimes we really need to talk about it and other times we want to talk about everyday happy events. Thanks for listening

  • Having cancer is really like living in the twilight zone. With people being either so good about it or so bad with stupid comments. I take care of a 92 year old lady a couple hours a day while going through Chemo and Radiation for Lung Cancer. I always walk in and say Hello to her and since my Chemo started she will greet me back with “Have you started losing your hair yet”? What do you say to something like that? I am just starting to lose my hair so I can say Yes now!

    My son is all I have other than my dog and best friend. My son is unfortunately in Prison 5 hours away. He gets out this September and I can’t wait to see him. He took my diagnosis hard and called a lot and sent cards and was praying for me. Then he must have got a hold of some information in the library on Lung Cancer and what a high mortality rate it has because it was like a light being switched off. He stopped saying he was praying for me and the phone calls dwindled. I can’t call him, he has to call me. When he does call he talks to me like I’m already gone. That is the hardest part. I have just begun to fight and he has already given up on me…

    If you have a parent with cancer don’t push them away because whether they say it or not they really need you in sickness as in healthy times.

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