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12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 11:15

I came across this list of well meaning but sometimes frustrating comments which I think we can all identify with. You know your friends and family mean well but sometimes they just don’t get it!  Has this happened to you? Are there any other well meaning but frustrating things people say which you could add to the list?  Let me know what you think Happy

1. “That’s a good cancer to have.”

There are no good cancers. There are definitely some which respond better to treatment than others, and I’m allowed to observe that as the patient, but you are not.
Please don’t tell me how lucky I am. I may not be in the humour to hear that.

2. “Cancer isn’t as hard as it used to be.”

That’s funny, because it felt pretty tough this morning when I was lying on the bathroom floor weeping over a bowel movement.

3. “I’ve always wanted to shave my head.”

Losing your hair to chemo is not the same as shaving your head because you thought Natalie Portman looked cool in V for Vendettta.

4. “You look like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta!”

No, I don’t.

5. “We didn’t think you’d be up for it.”

Don’t assume we’re not able to do things just because we have cancer. Keep inviting us to stuff. Sometimes we won’t be up to it, but sometimes we will, and we desperately need to leave the house.

6. “You’re so brave.”

We know you mean well when you say this, but we don’t feel brave. Bravery is something that happens when someone chooses to take on something scary. We don’t have a choice.

7. “Have you tried…?”

Unless you have a piece of advice so stellar that you think we literally can’t go on without it, please don’t make suggestions about our treatment. Yes, eating kiwis may be an effective way of combating constipation in your everyday life, but if the industrial-strength medical-grade laxatives an actual doctor has prescribed for me aren’t working, then adding more fruit to my diet probably won’t either.

8. “If anyone can beat this, you can.

”Because people who die as a result of cancer didn’t fight hard enough?

9. “Remember, there’s always someone worse off than you.”

So helpful.

10. “I know how you feel.”

No, you don’t.

11. “At least you’ll have loads of free time now.”

I am not on holiday. I have taken time off work because dealing with cancer is literally a full-time job.

12. “Congratulations! You’re done!”

It’s not necessarily over just because we’ve had our last scheduled bit of chemo or radiation. Reaching the end of treatment can be a really scary time, so let me tell you when I’m ready to celebrate.


...So what should you say?

“I don’t really know what to say.”

It’s OK for you to be honest about how you’re feeling. We don’t expect you to be an expert in dealing with this really tough situation.

“I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

Sometimes a simple acknowledgement that things are a bit rubbish right now really helps.

“Do you need a lift home from chemo?”

Specific offers of help are much better than general “I’m here if you need me” type statements. We’ll actually take you up on them, and they will genuinely make a difference.

“Have you seen…?”

Film and TV recommendations are invaluable for days when we can’t get off the sofa and feel like we’ve exhausted Netflix.


Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 12:05 in response to Moderator Sarah

"There is no need to mope around, get up and do something" that has to be one of the worst 

Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 12:09 in response to jessietrevor96

That's a good one! people always suggest you'll feel much better if you get up and do something but have no idea how hard that can be at times. Great suggestion!

Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 15:17 in response to Moderator Sarah

Sarah, thanks so much for writing these out. You have hit the nail right on the head. I printed these off to put on my fridge because I know people mean well when they make suggestions such as these, but for those of us dealing with this horrible disease, when I hear these comments, it hits right in the pit of my stomach. Only someone who has dealt with cancer really knows what it feels like.

If I can figure out how to print these on Facebook, I will, with your permission. It would help those of us with cancer, as well as giving others an opportunity to avoid saying these things.

I lost my son to suicide almost 12 years ago, and some of the comments that were made to me at that time were just atrocious. I got involved with a Provincial group and we formed a committee dealing with suicidal issues. We worked hard on that committee and all of us were touched by suicide in some aspect, but what a change we made province-wide and indeed, Canada wide. We published a book that is now used to educate people, i.e. Police, First Responders, Medical, etc. as well as survivors of suicide, on how to respond appropriately when a suicide occurs. One of the things that really stood out was that people really wanted this information; they desperately wanted to know what to say at such a critical time in a person's life. When people responded to me in a more appropriate manner, it made such a big difference in how they made me feel on the loss of my son.  Perhaps we need to educate people on how to respond to cancer sufferers too.

Thanks again for posting this, and let me know if you think it would be okay to post this on Facebook. Are there credits that should be mentioned to anyone for them?


Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 16:35 in response to LorraineD

Hi Lorraine, so glad you liked this Happy

The original list was written by someone called Louise McSharry. You can find a link to it here

It's fine to share on Facebook, in fact I believe it's already going viral!


Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 16:55 in response to LorraineD

I agree, we really don't need to be told that we are brave.  I didn't choose this, I don't need well meaning peope telling me to be positive, that I will beat this.  The worst was when I was told by the Macmillan nurse that the chemo I was about to have would definitely mean hair loss and friends were saying not everybody loses it!  Please don't try to be kind we are trying to be realists and have been told what to expect.  I don't want to hear about your friend/relative's experience with cancer, this is about me and we are all individuals and what happened to them may not happen to me.  Most importantly treat me like a normal person not some strange victim of disease.  I am still me!

Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 17:13 in response to Bexmac54

Let's face it, we're all an awkward bunch of buggers to deal with!

I personally get fed up of people who blatantly ignore the fact I have Cancer and avoid talking about anything other than the weather, but at the same time get annoyed by people who go out of their way to insert it into every sentence. Not sure which is worst - ignorance or pity lol

On the chemo/hair thing. At least two people suffered from foot in mouth syndrome with me because I didn't lose my hair during EOX chemo! I felt like I had disappointed some of them - especially the people in my chemo circle who asked "is this your first cycle" when I was going into round four, dreading the canulisation as I had chemo veins by then, facing a 4 hour infusion and feeling like death warmed up! 

My favourite remains a former colleague who saw me at a conference about a year after I was diagnosed and blurted out "I thought you were dead!". He almost died of embarrassment!



Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 17:16 in response to Moderator Sarah

Thank you Sarah, I will check that out, and if I can figure out how to post this stuff on Facebook, I will do it.

(I'm not Facebook savvy yet!)



Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 17:24 in response to Bexmac54

Hi Bexmac, I believe one of the reasons people say those things to us is because of their own fear about having cancer. I got kind of tired of people telling me to be "positive" and I would beat this cancer. When I reached the end of my rope on it, I said, (in as kind of a way as possible) I've never heard tell of "positive" ever curing cancer, have you? It did set them back a bit, but I bet they never said it to anyone else with cancer again.

Take care.


Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 17:49 in response to LorraineD

I got offered a vicar by my work place. Not sure how to take that one.

I don't like when people say things like "you take ages to eat" and "can you manage that" like I am a child. I guess they are only trying to help.

Some people act cold around you as well which I don't like.

Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 18:21 in response to LorraineD

Thanks Lorraine, I may use that one as that "positive" word is starting to grate ha ha.  It was good to have a bit of a rant!

Take care as well


Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 18:45 in response to Moderator Sarah

The one that shook me rigid was in a letter to me shortly after I was diagnosed.  I didn't hide anything and explicitly said to the people round me that I had advanced breast cancer which had spread to the lymph and bones.

The person signed off the letter by saying "I hope you enjoy your convalescence afterwards".  Interesting thought - maybe floating on fluffy white clouds to the sound of harp music??

Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

19 Feb 2015 18:59 in response to Boatgirl

That really is a classic!


Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

20 Feb 2015 11:55 in response to Bexmac54

That's a good one Bex! People always tell you about someone else they know and assume that all cancers are the same and that all treatments are the same. They think because you are having chemo you will automatically react the same way as someone else they know. People don't seem to get there are more than 200 different types of cancer and numerous combinations of drug therapy which affect people in all sorts of ways, especially when it comes to hair loss Plain

Re: 12 things never to say to someone who has cancer

20 Feb 2015 17:18 in response to Moderator Sarah


It was weird to see this thread appear because I have had a strange week with two friends asking me if I was scared that I was going to die.  I was quite shocked when the first one came out with it, then when I was asked again by someone else I thought 'goodness I must look ill !'.  What on earth are you supposed to say to that question?  No, I'm really looking forward to it?  Moral of the story in my opinion is - if you cant say something nice, shut up! x