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12 Things Not to Say to Someone With Cancer

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
  • It can be tough to know how to support someone with cancer, especially when you’re not sure what to say. If you’re experiencing feelings of shock, fear and sadness, it may be hard to keep your feelings in check and say the right thing. You can’t fix the situation, but there are ways to help. Being present and simply listening is usually the best thing you can do. But if you feel like you need to say something, there are some comments and questions you should avoid.

    Here’s a list of things you should never say to someone with cancer. Vote up the ones you think should top the list.

  • 1
    140 60
    “I had a friend who died of cancer.”
    Cream Colored Roses

    A statement like this feels like a punch in the gut to someone with cancer. It’s natural to think about people you know who went through a similar experience and you probably want to let this person know you understand the severity of the situation. But no one with cancer wants to be reminded they could die. Dial this back a bit and say “I had a friend with cancer and I imagine it can be tough to go through.”

  • 2
    107 61
    “Everything’s going to be fine.”
    Male friends

    A cancer diagnosis is scary and a knee-jerk response could be to say something seemingly comforting like “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be OK.” In reality, no one knows if everything will turn out fine. Sometimes a comment like this can feel dismissive, as though it’s playing down the severity of the situation. It’s best to avoid remarks that sound like cheerleading. Stick with something supportive and sincere like “We’ll get through this together.”

  • 3
    86 49
    “What are your odds?”
    Comforting a friend

    It’s natural to want to ask this question and sometimes it’s OK if you’re a close friend or family member. But if you’re a coworker or acquaintance, it can be awkward. This is a “none of your business” situation. Let the person with cancer reveal this information if they want to. If your curiosity gets the best of you, do some online research about the prognosis for that type of cancer (and keep in mind statistics may not be current). But never bring it up in conversation.

  • 4
    79 68
    “That’s a good cancer to have.”
    two senior Caucasian women talking at restaurant table during lunch

    Let’s be honest. There’s no such thing as good cancer. Sure, there are some cancers that respond to treatment better than others, but they’re still challenging to deal with. A better approach is to say “I don’t know much about that type of cancer. Can you tell me more about it?” and just listen.

  • 5
    75 46
    “How are you?”
    female friends holding hands across table with coffee

    This question is a no-no because it’s too open-ended. If someone is already exhausted, answering a question like this can be a drain. It’s better to be time-specific. Try questions like “How was your last treatment?”, “How are you feeling this morning?”, or “How were your last test results?”. Keep in mind that people with cancer get tired of talking about their diagnosis. If you notice them pausing or changing the subject, switch gears and just talk about everyday life.

  • 6
    75 42
    Man staring at cell phone with look of worry or stress

    Saying nothing at all is often the worst way to help someone with cancer. You may not have the right words or be able to manage your emotions, but not saying anything can make them feel abandoned and hurt. Simply acknowledging that you feel awkward lets the person know you care and don’t want to hurt their feelings. “I’m not sure what to say right now, but know that I’m here for you” is absolutely perfect.

  • 7
    74 36
    “Congrats, your treatment is over!”
    African American family sharing meal outdoors and laughing

    Finishing up chemo or radiation is a milestone and could be a reason to celebrate, but it doesn’t always feel like that to the person with cancer. Getting to the end of a treatment schedule can be stressful, because there are still unknowns. How will my final test results turn out? Will the cancer be gone? What happens next? It’s wise to take your cues from the person with cancer and only celebrate if they’re ready.

  • 8
    64 57
    “You don’t look sick.”
    Women in painting class

    Comments like this are very common and very frustrating. Imagine a time when you had a cold and felt crummy, but looked well. It’s similar for people with cancer. They may look just fine and feel horrible, or feel great but look tired. Play it safe and don’t assume someone is feeling well or sick based on their appearance. If you really want to know how they’re doing, it’s better to say “You look well today. How are you feeling?”

  • 9
    59 46
    “I didn’t think you’d be feeling up for it.”
    Women taking selfies

    A common mistake that annoys people with cancer is when friends and family assume they don’t have the energy for activities. They would much rather have the option to decline than feel left out. Keep inviting them to things and don’t take it personally when they say no. Because they’ll probably say no a lot. But they’ll be thrilled to say yes to your invitation on that day when they feel great and want to get out of the house.

  • 10
    55 51
    “I know going through this is hard.”

    This comment sounds sympathetic and kind, but it could rub someone the wrong way. Even if you’ve known someone with cancer or had cancer yourself, it’s impossible to know exactly what this person is going through. Everyone experiences disease differently, so don’t make assumptions. People going through cancer do want the difficulty of their situation to be acknowledged, so a simple “I’m here for you” lets them know you care and are a supportive friend.

  • 11
    39 46
    “Are you throwing up all the time?”
    Smiling Woman with Cancer

    Surprisingly, people with cancer get asked this question all the time. You may not have much experience with cancer and are curious how they’re reacting to chemotherapy, but most people don’t want to share the gory details about their side effects. No matter how bad you want to know, don’t ask. Just let them share if and when they want to. A more gentle way to ask this question is “How did your last treatment go?”

  • 12
    37 62
    “That wig looks great on you.”
    Bald woman putting on wig

    In a non-cancer scenario, you’d probably never tell someone their wig looks natural or they look great with no hair. That’s why it’s a tricky topic when you’re trying to support someone with cancer. Some people may appreciate this compliment and others may find it forced and insincere. Instead, simply say “It’s great to see you.” If they mention their wig or baldness, listen to how they’re feeling about it and determine if now’s the right time for a compliment.

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  1. Say what? 8 things you shouldn't - or should - say to a cancer patient. Fred Hutch. https://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2013/10/what-not-to-say-to-a-cancer-patient.html
  2. CancerCare Weighs In: What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer. Cancer Care. https://www.cancercare.org/blog/cancer-i-care-i-weighs-in-what-not-to-say-to-someone-who-has-cancer
  3. 2 things never to say to someone who has cancer. Cancer Research UK. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-chat/thread/12-things-never-to-say-to-someone-who-has-cancer
  4. What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient. Cancer Today. https://www.cancertodaymag.org/Pages/cancer-talk/What-Not-to-Say-to-a-Cancer-Patient.aspx
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 11
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.