Saturday, October 1, 2011

What Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer

I have leukemia. There’s just no way to sidle up to that one, foreshadow it, or drop hints, so there it is. I just found out about it, and I don’t have a lot (if any) specific information about my particular case. I do know that I can either live a long time or not. Pretty much just like everyone else, maybe only tireder and more bruised up. Unfortunately I do not have and knowing me I will not ever get “unexplained weight loss,” which can be a symptom for some people. I am actually happy to have a good reason for being so fatigued all the time. I was feeling like a bad, lazy person. Now I can truly nap without guilt.

Here’s what I do know a lot about after just a couple of days. People will say the darnedest things to someone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis. I’m making a list of what not to say or do, no matter how much you want to fix things for your friend or how much you need comfort yourself . (If I could get cancer, so could you. If I can die, so can you.)

Don’t tell them that they will be fine and that this could be so much worse. A few minutes ago, you couldn’t even pronounce what they have. You know nothing about their particular case, even if you have or have had cancer or Uncle Jim has “the same thing.” Don’t tell them to take a deep breath or not to worry until they have something to worry about. They’re breathing fine and with or without your reassurance, they’re actually impressed with how calm they are, and they’re still going to be thinking “cancer cancer cancer” just about every waking moment, kind of like a Greek chorus, while they empty the cat’s litter box or watch the news.

Unless your cancer-diagnosed friend lives in a forest up in the mountains with only weekly stagecoach service, or is technologically challenged as well as cancerous, don’t send them articles. They read everything in print on the first night after they heard the diagnosis. As a sub-category of this “don’t,” don’t send them inspirational poems or stories that appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul.

What about telling your friend that you’re praying for them? This is a sticky wicket. If your friend knows that you really are the praying sort and that you will actually spend a minute or so thinking about them every morning and wishing them well, go ahead and tell them. Unless he or she is a total sourpuss, your prayers will  probably be appreciated even by the non-religious. However, If your friend has good reason to doubt that you pray at all, you’re going to come off as a lying, cliché-mouthing hypocrite. Your choice. But please don’t take this opportunity to urge your friend to trust in God’s will, accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, or pray with you. This is not your big chance to save a soul.

So what can you say? It can be as little as “I’m so sorry!” It can be “I love you,” if you do. It can be a quiet hug. It can be an offer to kill anyone or anything who is mean to your friend. If in your shock you say something stupid or careless and you realize it, admit it on the spot or as soon as you can. It’s probably better not to say “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” If you want to do something, just tell yourself to be on the lookout for what the person might need. Maybe it’s just a card in the mail next week for starters. (This is the area where I’ve most often failed with friends. Never again.)

I bet that I’ll have more to say as time goes along. About everything! It’s almost heady, this feeling of liberation that’s come upon me.


  1. Oh, Sharon! I'm so sorry to hear this. Thanks for updating the blog and sharing it. And for advising us what not to do and say. It's a hard call. When someone dear to me is coping with a serious illness, I try to send them things that will make them laugh. I don't know if it helps any, but they say laughter is the best medicine. I hope it's not a mistake on my part.

  2. Well heck, fluck cancer. I love you!

  3. Oh Sharon, I am sorry. I love reading your blog. I wish you the best in your fight...and by the way, thanks for the advice. It's so hard to know what to say.


  4. Sharon, I am so sorry. I wish I'd stopped by sooner, as I've just noticed that you posted this a full three weeks ago. But I guess it's never too late to say that I am truly sorry, that I wish you didn't have to go through this, and that cancer just totally sucks. SUCKS!

    And that I love you.

  5. Oh dear, I'm so sorry too. My computer somehow kept giving me your post about books on your bedside table and I thought you'd stopped blogging. I just suddenly noticed that there were newer posts. I hope your treatment is going well.

  6. Oh, Sharon. I'm sorry. I also hope treatment is going well.

    This post is truly awesome, and should be published for all to see. As a hospice worker and cancer survivor, I completely agree with all your points. And there will be more.

    Here's a quiet, cyber hug...xx

  7. Thank you to everyone who has commented. I felt for awhile that this post sounded churlish, and I really didn't mean it to be. However, reading it again, I have to say that it's all true. It's just that there's more to it than this, and there's plenty of love to go with all of it.

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