top of page

10 things never to say to a cancer patient, and what to do instead

Your intentions are good, but did you just say something that inflicted pain on a friend living with cancer? Here's how to navigate and help your friend, family member, or anyone else faced with a cancer diagnosis.

These are the 10 things never to say to a cancer patient, based on my own experiences with cancer, and my work as a dietitian with clients whose cancer is behind them. In my next post, I'll list the things you can do instead.

Forest of Hope message

At the recent conference, Hear Her, Heal Her: A Jewish Conversation about Women’s Health, sponsored by Cedars Sinai and Kalsman Institute, Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, spoke with gratitude of the love her community bestowed on her. Still, there were other people who unknowingly said things meant to help, but instead, were painful and unhelpful.

In one instance, a person told her chemotherapy is poison. "Chemo is not poison, it is medicine, " Rabbi Goldberg says. She chose to use language that empowers, and characterized her cancer as a "growth" instead of a tumor. Rabbi Goldberg, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and has since recovered, struggles with the word, "survivor," because it says something about those who died. She adds, cancer was not a battle for her. "I am not in a battle. I am working with my body."

Remember that cancer is not a death sentence, and people go on to live long and productive lives. There are an estimated 15.5 million cancer survivors in the U.S. alone, or nearly 5% of the population, according to statistics from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The number of survivors is expected to increase.

Heal Her, Hear Her Conference

Subscribe! Get continuous updates on nutrition for cancer survivors. Click the free download button at top of page, and you'll be directed to the subscribe link.

Here are my top 10 list of things never to say to a cancer patient or someone in recovery:

  1. Never say the treatment or drug you're taking is toxic. This medicine may save her life, and you're undermining the trust she has in her medical team.

  2. Never say, you know I heard that... Anecdotal stories are just that, stories, and you're not on her medical team or know her treatment protocol. Is your information accurate and clinically proven? Even then, be hesitant to share stories because every cancer patient is different.

  3. Never say, I always worry about getting cancer myself. It's not about you at all.

  4. Never say, you lost weight, you look great! A cancer patient has to maintain her weight, and often loses muscle mass as a result of the cancer itself or the treatment. If the weight loss becomes noticeable, it may be scary to a patient. Never say that.

  5. Never say, have you cut out (a food)? Or, you need to try a vegan, vegetarian, or raw food diet. There is no one food that can cure, heal, or even prevent cancer. It's unhelpful and you're implying he has a part in causing his cancer, which, except for certain behaviors such as smoking, is untrue. When he is past treatment, a dietitian can step in to suggest cancer protective foods.

  6. Never say, my mother's third cousin twice removed, went to a great doctor, or took this drug, or went to (pick a country) for treatment. These fall under anecdotal stories (See Number 2 ).

  7. Never say, so and so was on that medicine and was throwing up all day. Really? How helpful is that? She has enough fears of side effects. Have you seen the long scroll of side effects that accompanies chemotherapy drugs?

  8. Never say, have you tried...? Patients are overwhelmed with treatment decisions as it is. Unless she asks you directly, or she's sitting in your office and you're a medical professional, do not offer unsolicited advice.

  9. Never say, I heard about this herbal supplement, or a vitamin you can take. This is dangerous territory, as some supplements can interact with the medicines she's been prescribed and make the chemotherapy less effective. In addition, supplements are not regulated, so they can be harmful, or at minimum, a waste of money for someone already stretched by medical fees.

  10. Never say, I was talking to our mutual friend about your cancer... This is particularly irksome to me, because my first thought is, am I your pathetic friend now? My second thought is: Have you thought about helping me, rather than talking about my cancer?

Now that you know the 10 things never to say to a cancer patient, in the second part of this post I'll explain what you can do instead. Specific types of kindness and support can help someone thrive through cancer and beyond. As Rabbi Goldberg says about a cancer diagnosis, "Nothing is the same again. You are now entering the wilderness," translated as ba'midbar in Hebrew in the Bible. "It is scary and confusing and hard to find our way," she says.

However, Rabbi Goldberg points out that the objective of the wilderness in the Bible was to become a community of ethics and kindness, vulnerability, and shared stories. "Community is a gift you can give," Rabbi Goldberg emphasizes.

Subscribe! Get continuous updates on nutrition for cancer survivors. Click the free download button at top of page, and you'll be directed to the subscribe link.

bamboo forest

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page