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What to say (and not say) when someone is diagnosed with Cancer

This post has been verified by Ali Nowroozi

It’s hard to know what to say when someone tells you they have cancer. Especially if you don’t have experience with it through either yourself or a loved one. Unfortunately, this sudden sadness and confusion can lead to saying the wrong things. Even if they were well intended they may come off the wrong way. For this reason, we will start with what not to say to chemo patients and then follow up with good examples of what to say when someone says they have cancer. However, If you have said some things that may sound wrong, don’t worry! They deal with many phone calls from people trying to comfort them. Patients can usually understand that you mean well at the end of the day. If you have someone you know who was diagnosed with cancer what to say can be difficult to find. Read on for some tips:  
  1. What NOT to say when someone tells you they have cancer
  2. What to say when someone tells you they have cancer

What Not To Say to a Cancer Patient

Below you will find the list of commonly said things that may put the patient in a bad mood, even when said with good intentions. If you have made some of these mistakes please remember it’s difficult to know what to say. The sheer gravity of the situation may cause one’s tongue to tie up. For this reason, it’s just as important to know what not to say. Below are some of what cancer patients don’t want you to say:
Don’t suggest alternative solutions to their current treatment
This is on the top of the list of what you should not say to a cancer patient. Suggesting alternative medicine, and making the patient doubt the treatment procedure is some of the worst things you can do. Many people who are unqualified to give medical advice attempt to do so. Because their “so and so” have gone through the same type of cancer. Every patient is different, every doctor handles treatments differently. One of the worst things that patients go through before chemo is unqualified people giving them medical advice. This can cause the patient to doubt their doctor and the treatment when there is no reason to do so. Remember, going through cancer is also a mental battle. We don’t want to plant seeds of doubt in such difficult times.
Don’t be overly/unrealistically positive
It’s not bad to say encouraging words and be positive but this has to be done within reason. This is one of the common and ineffective methods people use to comfort cancer patients. Saying things like “You will be fine!”, “Don’t worry it’s an easy procedure!” do not work. Cancer is a serious disease and patients know not to take the diagnosis lightly. Patients can tell fake positivity from miles away. Many loved ones are giving them the same often unrealistic positive talks. This can be irritating for the patient. Moreover, patients may feel like their worries are being dismissed. Of course we never want to be pessimistic, however positive talk should be realistic, without dismissing the real worries of the patient. We will talk about what you should do in the section titled “How to respond when someone says they have cancer.”
Don’t ask if they shaved their hair yet
They may be starting to take in the situation. Asking them questions about what they might go through will only make them more anxious. They may even feel uncomfortable telling people that they shaved their hair over the phone. So this is best left to the patient whether they would like to disclose this information or not.
Don’t make negative comments about their shaved hair
It may surprise you to know how many people actually do this! Even as jokes to distract people from the seriousness of the situation, most patients don’t appreciate this. During the first few days of shaving their hair, even the most confident people may still feel self-conscious about hearing negative comments about their shaved hair. Especially for women who are used to seeing themselves with hair their whole lives. When talking to cancer patients, it’s best to keep it simple. If you are thinking of what to say to a cancer patient losing hair, just saying “It looks nice on you” would suffice. If you still aren’t sure whether you will come off as natural then you don’t have to make any comment about it at all. Silence about this matter can indicate there is nothing that looks unusual.  
Don’t minimize their situation
You may be trying to do this with good intentions, in order to comfort the patient and be optimistic. But, remember the patient is worried. They may feel like they are being dismissed or that their situation is being downplayed. Acknowledge the situation as it is and offer to be there for them. You can have a look at our blog Gifts Ideas for Chemo Patients to find both physical gifts and ways to support them psychologically.
Don’t say: “It may be a misdiagnosis!”
After the patient clarifies that a misdiagnosis is not the case some people tend to insist that it might be. In this situation, it’s better to accept things as they are so that the patient and people close to them can focus on dealing with the situation. Please remember that mental strength is very important during cancer treatment.
Don’t say: “Don’t take chemotherapy, just heal with meditation!”
This was among the suggestions that are commonly given to patients. No, you cannot meditate cancer away. Not only is this not comforting to the patient, but it can also potentially be harmful to the patient to accept unproven ideas about cancer.
Don’t say: “Chemotherapy will ruin your health!”
This goes beyond words that can be misinterpreted to suggestions that are downright harmful. Yes, chemotherapy is taxing however it is among the best treatments for cancer that we currently have. As we have mentioned before, psychological support and mental strength are very important. Making the patient doubt the process will damage their fortitude.
Don’t point out their weight loss
While you may point out the weight loss to cheer up the patient as a positive comment, remember they may be in a vulnerable state. They may interpret this to mean that they look drained. The most important thing to remember is not to be overly positive and come across as fake and forced. Simple words of encouragement “I’m with you all the way”, and “I believe in you” are enough.
Don’t keep calling them when they are not answering the phone
Patients may be tired of phone calls and may need some space. They may need a break from people and if they don’t answer your call, you can send them a text message. The message can be as simple as: “Hey, I called you but you didn’t answer. I didn’t want to keep ringing your phone in case you need some time alone. Let me know when you feel like talking, I would like to speak to you when you feel you are able to.”

What to say to Cancer Patients

Many get paralyzed thinking of what to say when someone gets a bad diagnosis. Patients don’t need to hear anything extra special. The best things to say to someone with cancer are often simple words of encouragement. Helping them with chores, and being there when they tell or hint that they need support is enough. It’s okay to admit that you don’t know what to say. They will most likely understand you. Some examples of what to say to a cancer patient: 
“I’m here for you”
“I will be here to support you. You can always rely on me”
“Please let me know if you need help, any time!”
Stay in touch with them. Ask them about the updates while remembering to respect their privacy and boundaries
Go to their next chemo with them
Chemo takes some time and the patient may need company with them. Simply being there for them will make them feel loved and supported. For more, check out our blog on what to write in a card for cancer patients.

What to text someone who has cancer?

Don’t text, give them a call instead. The patient would feel the seriousness of the situation is being dismissed by a mere text message. No matter how supportive the message is, it is much better to give them a call instead of texting. If your call is not answered, the patient may need some privacy in that case you can text them to ask when you can call them.

Overall, you don’t have to stress about what to say. The best things to say to cancer patients are often simple but to the point. When you start to overthink and tell yourself you have to go the extra mile, you may end up making mistakes. This can lead to saying things that are well intended but may be interpreted the wrong way. This is a time when emotions are high and like we said before; it’s best to keep it simple. Just show your love and care and that is the best thing you can do, and show them that you are there for them no matter what.
I hope this article was helpful to you. If you are looking for a gift to comfort a cancer patient you can have a look at our article here. You can add customizable gift message cards to your purchases at Masumi and you can click here to get ideas about what to write in a card for cancer patients.

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