10 Things NOT to Say to a Cancer Patient

Dear Friend, Caregiver, Loved One and Perfect Stranger,

Not to overstate the obvious, but people with cancer get tired, exhausted, simply depleted…physically and mentally and emotionally. Even their hair hurts. That kind of supreme fatigue can lead to anger, sarcasm, and even passive-aggression. Cancer patients sometimes lash out and bite the heads off of their well-intentioned friends only to immediately regret it in their next breath.

For example, after my double mastectomy, I offered my sister the jello sitting on my hospital tray. I wasn’t planning to eat it but when she accepted, I screamed at her for always taking hand-outs and fat-shamed her…over a cup of jello. Irrational? Yes, absolutely and also hurtful. 

But the roller coaster of feelings and unreasonable thoughts are all part of a cancer journey. And each person has their own journey. So if a loved one is going through cancer, buckle up for the ride, check for loose objects in the cockpit, and most importantly do not take things too personally.

And now for your public service announcement, here are the 10 things you probably do not want to say to someone with cancer:

    1. “You’re SO strong.”
      Hmm, well let’s see. I’m only strong because I HAVE TO BE. Being strong is the only option I was given, considering that I’m fighting for my survival here. What’s the alternative…to roll over and die? Ugh…I wish I were stronger most days.


    1. “You’re lucky that they have treatment for your disease.”
      I mean, I guess. If you consider me lucky because people are cutting off my body parts, stabbing me with sharp objects, burning me from the inside out with radiation and poisoning my veins with chemicals used for extermination in WWII…then maybe I am the luckiest! You’re a genius! Hate you. Love you!


    1. “Cancer loves sugar. So you probably shouldn’t eat that. Have you thought about changing your diet?”
      Yes, I have thought about eating clean and green my whole adult life. But if it didn’t happen before the cancer, I don’t think it’s going to happen at this moment…unless you want to hire a private chef for me. No. Right now in my life, all I need is comfort food. So you can go change your diet, fatty – you have ice cream for breakfast! Now go away so I can eat my donut.


    1. “You should really talk to a professional.”
      Oh, you mean I should talk to a therapist…like lie down on a couch in front of a perfect stranger to help me dissect my imploding thoughts? Talk all those feelings out? Talk about the fear, the anger, the hopelessness, the despair, the sheer terror of it all…them feelings? Well, I actually wouldn’t know where to begin. My feelings are like a shredded feather pillow…the feathers flying all around the room, and I’m trying to catch them and stuff them back into a pillow with HOLES IN IT! Every medical procedure and ache and pain rips another hole in the pillowcase. So maybe I’ll wait until the dust settles a bit. Maybe you need to go talk to a professional about all the idiotic things you say to me.


    1. “You’ll be fine – you have such a positive attitude.”
      Thanks. But not really. I’m usually quite hostile in the quiet moments. And if attitude really mattered, why did I get sick in the first place? I was a pretty positive person before all of this happened. At the moment, my attitude about cancer is pretty crummy. So where does that leave me? And why don’t you just leave me alone with all your wisdom?! But wait – don’t leave me for too long…I need you to remind me how positive I am in spite of everything.


    1. “You should simplify your life.”
      My life is pretty simple. I wake up. Go to the doctor, get stabbed a few times with needles. Get weighed, get infused, get sick. Go home, go to bed. Wash, rinse, repeat.


    1. “How are you?”
      If you have to ask, then don’t. Because if you really cared, you would already know how I am. Go away. But please come back. I’m just having a really bad day.


    1. “Call me if you need anything.”
      No, you call ME, damn it. I’m not going to ask you for help. I’m not going to call you in a moment of weakness asking you to peel me out of a chemo haze, or ask you to change my drains, or ask you to bring me a hot meal that consists of more than the two ingredients left in my fridge. I expect you to read my mind and figure out what I need and then just do it. I can’t think for myself, so I need you to think for me.


    1. “You’re going to come out of this a much better person.”
      Nope. Nah. No way. Don’t think so. I was actually a lovely person before the cancer…before the runaway train derailed my life in about 1000 different directions. I was fine. I was happy. Now, I have less patience for nonsense, less tolerance for ineptness and zero fucks for people who are wasting their lives. I’m filled with indignation for complaints and useless people saying useless things – like what you just said. Go! Now! Run…before I unleash almighty hell and rage upon your soul. But please come back.


  1. “It can always be worse.”
    Yes, thank you for reminding me that death is always my other option. Now go away. But don’t forget about me. It can only get worse if I have to endure this alone.