What to say to someone with cancer? Actually, you don’t have to say anything at all! Ever considered that? Smiles, prayers, flowers, Edible Arrangements!! (my personal favorite!) are always appreciated. But words….words are tricky. Use with care.
Have you ever been in this fix? You hear distressing news……you are sad and shocked. You think for a moment of what you can say that will offer comfort, and then….your foot flies up toward your face, and straight into your mouth. The moment you see the expression on the other person’s face, you know what you’ve done. Chances are that the words that came out of your mouth were either offensive, hurtful, or just plain ignorant. I have been guilty, guilty, guilty of this! As my father wisely reminded me, “Job’s three friends were a great comfort to him in his distress…..until they opened their mouths.” I’m sharing some what-not-to-say comments that either I have said myself, have been said to me, or have been said to friends of mine – all in the spirit of helpfulness – as a sort of public service announcement!
- “You have breast cancer? Oh, I’m so sorry! My aunt (mom, friend, etc…) died of that.” Really? Of course I’m sorry to hear that, but if you meant to be helpful, you missed.
- “I know how you feel.” When my dad was a pastor, he visited a church member who was in a hospital, dying. As soon as he uttered these words, he realized his error. He immediately followed up with, “I’m sorry. I really don’t know how you feel.” She smiled sweetly and replied, “I was thinking that.” Unless you really do know how someone feels, don’t say it!
- “You’ll see him/her again.” When my sister was killed in a car accident, we heard this often. It wasn’t comforting at the time. We knew we would see her again in Heaven – our faith in that reality was unshakable. However, we missed her desperately, and we were devastated by the realization that we would not see her again on earth and that her children would grow up without their mother. There were just no words that could make this better, but the quiet actions of some great friends did help to ease the stress of daily living for the first few weeks after that tragedy. I don’t recall any words that were spoken by the people who were the biggest blessings to our family.
- “You need to be ____________.” Fill in the blank here with any of the following (and so many more):
- “taking _____________ (insert name of vitamin that is the latest internet sensation.”
- “taking better care of yourself.”
- “eating _________, or _________, or ________.”
- “Don’t let your children see you cry.” This was shared with me by my friend who has a serious chronic disease that leaves her tired, sick, and miserable for weeks at a time. She takes weekly chemo pills to control her disease, but she is in and out of the hospital with life threatening symptoms. Her children have seen her cry, but they’ve also seen her laugh, and handle her suffering with grace, strength, faith, and humor. It’s hard on children to see their moms in pain, but they need to see their moms be real too, and learn from her how to deal with trials. God made us and knows our weaknesses. He didn’t expect Job to put on a phony face when he was hurting, and He doesn’t expect it from us either.
- “My grandfather had cancer. He didn’t take chemotherapy because he wanted to die pretty.” Yes, a business owner actually said this to me when I went for my first pedicure after completing chemo treatment. He was curious about the state of my nails (pretty awful and falling off). Once I explained the reason, he thought for several seconds, and those were the words that he chose. I actually wasn’t offended, just incredulous! I think that he knew as soon as those words left his mouth, that they were ignorant, because he disappeared pretty quickly after delivering them.
- “At least you don’t have cancer.” People who have chronic illnesses are offended by this because it downplays their suffering. My friend who has Crohn’s Disease has been sick for most of her adult life, and on chemo indefinitely to control the symptoms. Another friend has EDS Syndrome. She lives with five known aneurysms in her body. She knows that on any day, she may face yet another fight to survive. There are many more diseases than just cancer that leave their victims weak, miserable, and fighting for their lives.
- “God is in control.” A believer knows this, but she is probably wondering why, since He is indeed sovereign, that He is allowing her to suffer. Don’t judge if you haven’t been there. “God is good – all the time” is a better reminder.
- “What kind of surgery are having?” Maybe I don’t want to share that….with you!
- “Let me know if you need anything.” This is really not at all offensive! It could be tweaked though to be more helpful. How often does anyone ever take you up on that offer? Instead, try the following:
- “Tell me something that I can do that would help you or your family.”
- “What night can I bring dinner?”
- “Can I drive you somewhere?” or “Can I pick up your children from school?”
- “What kind of restaurants do you like?”
- “Where can I send the Edible Arrangements?” (Did I just say that again?!)
If you are reading this and thinking, “Oh no. I think I said that to her!” Have no fear. The chemo did a number on my memory, and I have forgotten who said what – except #6 – I’ll always remember that one!!
This list has been in the making for a while. I have a group of buddies who represent a variety of chronic illnesses. We have fun sharing the good, bad, and the ugly. They were my inspiration for this list. You know who you are!
Please share your own ideas for “what-not-to-say” in the comments. I’m sure there’s plenty more to add to this list.