Things Not to Say to a Cancer Patient or Their Family

While keeping with the “cancer” theme this weekend (in honor of my daughter’s big fundraiser yesterday), I wanted to quickly list things to say and things not to say to cancer patients and their families.

First of all, just about everyone knows someone, or knows of someone who has or had cancer. It is becoming increasingly common in our society. Some of the most common forms of cancer and their risks are listed below, in case you’re interested:

THE RISK OF BEING DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER BY AGE 65 (among the most common cancers)
*M=Male *F=Female
Bladder Cancer: M=1 in 40; F= 1 in 107
Brain and Nervous System Cancer: M=1 in 124; F= 1 in 170
Breast Cancer: M=1 in 868 people; F= 1 in 8 people
Bowel Cancer: M = 1 in 14 people; F = 1 in 19
Kidney Cancer: M=1 in 56; F= 1 in 90
Leukemia: M=1 in 66 ; F= 1 in 96
Liver Cancer: M=1 in 117 ; F= 1 in 214
Lung Cancer: M=1 in 14 ; F= 1 in 18
Melanoma: M=1 in 55; F= 1 in 56
Lymphoma: M=1 in 51; F= 1 in 61
Oral Cancer: M=1 in 84; F= 1 in 157
Ovarian Cancer:  F= 1 in 51
Prostate Cancer: M=1 in 8
Stomach Cancer: M=1 in 64; F= 1 in 120
Uterine Cancer:  F= 1 in 43
(found at and

With these kind of odds, it is almost certain that your life will be touched by someone who suffers from cancer, but what do you say to encourage them? How do you help?

At one of my daughter’s fundraisers, I had someone make a comment that I’m sure he meant innocently enough, but it hit me like a semi-truck. It was a Chick-fil-a Fundraiser shortly after Bella was diagnosed. An older man came up to me and said “My grandson passed away from Leukemia…I sure hope she beats it!” and then walked away. I was kind of stunned. I mean, yes, I know that cancer can take a life, but I had not let my mind go there. I did not want to think about the “what if?”

When Bella was first diagnosed, the “what if” hit me VERY hard. You see, my older sister had 3 beautiful children. Her middle child, Braylon, was diagnosed with A.L.L. (the same Leukemia Bella has) as an infant and passed away just after his second birthday. On one hand, it is so nice to have someone so close to me to talk to, who knows exactly what I’m going through, but on the other hand…it also brings that knowledge closer to home-that my baby may not be able to fight it off.


After that comment made by the elderly gentleman, I decided to think about the things you should and should not say to cancer patients:

(or their family)

1. Do not tell them how someone you know passed away from the same condition. They do not need to hear that.

2. Do not ask them “What are their odds?” When Bella was first diagnosed, I was asked this a lot. I understand where it comes from and people genuinely want to know from a place of love, but it is such a hard question to answer and something the patient and/or family may not want to think about. Odds are just a number and do not apply to every patient. Ask about how that specific person is doing that day-not what is expected of people with the same diagnosis.

3. Do not try to push all of your “natural home remedies” on them. I cannot tell you how many people have tried this. I know they are just trying to help, but:

a. If rubbing some kind of oil on my child would heal her,
don’t you think there would be far less cancer in the
world? Seriously-it may help nausea and such, but it
is not going to take her cancer away.

b. Oncologists advise against taking vitamins and other
immune system “boosts” because that is counter-acting
the chemo. The whole point of the chemo is to suppress
her immune system until all of the cancer is completely
gone so it does not spread.

c. Every cancer is different in every patient. That is why
they have protocols in place. Cancer is complicated.
Just because a certain treatment worked for a certain
person does not mean it will work for you. Trust your
doctors. You know, the ones who went to school for at
least 8 years and have much more experience than
“Suzy from yoga class” who wants you to start juicing
and jogging to get rid of cancer.

4. Do not tell someone that their diet, lifestyle, etc. could have caused the cancer. Cancer is a crazy phenomenon. It hits people who are seemingly healthy, it hits the elderly, it hits children, it hits every race, and every social class. Many cancer patients internalize some of the blame already thinking “Was it the weight gain?”, “Was it stress?”, etc. so why add to the burden?

5. Do not say “We should go on vacation” or invite them on trips. (At least at the beginning). I cannot tell you the number of times we have been asked to go out of town. I know people mean well by it,  but it just makes Bella wish she was at the beach. We cannot be that far from the clinic “just in case.” Maybe I’m just paranoid about it, but I’m not taking any chances. My family invited us to Florida this past fourth of July and I told them no. They kept coming back and asking “Are you sure?” which made it that much worse.

6. Do not say, “You look sick” or “You look pale” or my favorite, “Are you feeling okay?” Of course they don’t feel okay…they have cancer. Chances are, they feel like crap, but they are trying to put on a brave face for you.

1. Did you see the game last night? or Did you see who got voted off on “Dancing with the Stars?” You have to remember their whole life is not about the cancer. They want to be as “normal” as possible.

2. If your friend/family member is not feeling too hot or has low counts and cannot go out, bring the fun to them! Rent a movie, cook them dinner, and dive into a carton of ice cream. Wear a face mask if you have to! Do not let the fun stop because they are sick. The last thing they need to feel is lonely and ostracized.

3. Tell them how great they look! How you love their new shirt. How their hair is growing back so nicely. If you keep telling them how awesome they look, they will begin to feel that way, themselves.

4. Be genuine. Saying “I’m so sorry” is perfectly acceptable. So is “I hate cancer!”, “I love you.”, “I’m here for you if you need anything.”, etc. If what you say is heartfelt, the patient will know it.

Do you have any to add? What do you guys think of my list? Please comment 🙂


6 thoughts on “Things Not to Say to a Cancer Patient or Their Family”

  1. This is a very poignant post. But I might add one more ‘don’t’ to your list, albeit this is something you shouldn’t say to someone who has a family member or close friend with cancer: don’t ask “How is [cancer patient] doing?”

    I know it’s just that person trying to make conversation and they’re probably genuinely concerned with how the patient is doing, but when someone you love is suffering with cancer the hardest thing to have to do is to explain over and over again how their treatment is going. My mother has lung cancer and whenever someone asks me “How is your mother?” I’m reminded of the grim fact that she has an inoperable tumor and that she’s always feeling unwell. And as much as I might want to just lie and say “she’s doing just fine” I know I can’t because, well, I’d be lying and because it destroys a little piece of myself every time I say that and know that it isn’t true.

    So yea, long story short: don’t ask “How is ___ doing?” or “How is the treatment going?” Best thing to do is to talk as if that person with cancer was never ill in the first place. Let the person you’re talking to bring up the subject in their own time, when they’re ready. Cancer affects everyone, not just the person who is sick.


  2. I love this Caran!! As someone who has been touched by cancer WAY too many times to count, you took the words right out of my mouth. So many people mean well, they just don’t know what to say. But sometimes, saying nothing at all is the better option. Or better yet, just a hug. ♥


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