Cat got your tongue, friend? It’s time to stop searching for the “perfect” thing to say to someone who has (or has had) cancer — it doesn’t exist.
We know your “get well soon” means well, but everyone is different. We’ve compiled a roundup of what not to say to someone with cancer to help you find more intentional language that is helpful and empowering.
Why it’s hard to find supportive words
Ignorance is not bliss. Sometimes the stress of not knowing what to say leads to people not saying anything at all. But silence is not what your bud needs (unless they specifically ask for it, of course). Ignoring or avoiding the topic of cancer with your bud can create unnecessary awkwardness and distance between you. No one wants that!
Everyone is different. Your Aunt Barb may love the uplifting Bible verse you send, whereas your co-worker appreciates a funny GIF in Slack. There’s one thing everyone can agree on: what culture has made the norm for supportive responses (aka the stuff you see on balloons) are now seen as empty platitudes.
We know from experience what lands well and what doesn’t. We’re here to help you steer clear of the latter and replace it with something better.
Here’s a list for what to say to someone with cancer instead of the usual Hallmark sayings.
Instead of “Get well soon,” say, “Sending lots of love and hugs your way.”
“Get well soon” tops the charts as the worst phrase to say to someone with a deadly disease. What if they don’t get well? What if it’s not soon, or even ever? These empty words are on every greeting card and balloon at the grocery store, but should be used for people with colds or broken bones. NOT cancer patients.
Send love instead. If your bud is into it, you can opt for, “F*CK CANCER!” Save for those who are into edgy humor (aka not your Aunt Barb).
We really love these greeting cards from FIVE DOT POST that can help lighten the mood without making light of the sickness.
Instead of “Everything happens for a reason,” say, “This really sucks. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
No one wants to hear their sickness is due to the alignment of the stars. Even if you’re of the same faith or worldview as your friend with cancer, saying, “everything happens for a reason” makes it seem like it’s their fault or they need to find something beneficial about their situation. That’s not true.
Empathy reigns. Saying that their situation sucks and feeling the weight of it with them, instead of dismissing it, can help them feel understood.
Instead of “How are you?” say, “Thinking of you today. I’m around if you want to talk, or just want some company.”
Can we please retire the question, “How are you?” America loves to throw this phrase out during a greeting, but it dampens the real meaning of its prompt. Plus, when your bud has cancer, you already know how they are — not so great.
Let them know specifically that you are open to discussion, but on their terms. They may or may not be ready for talking and could want someone to sit in silence watching TV with them.
Instead of “Let me know what I can do to help,” say, “I’m running errands today, what can I help check off your list?”
Be specific to make it easier for your bud to get help they need, like: “I’m going to the grocery store and wanted to pick up some snacks and that cold brew you like -- is there anything else I can grab you?” If you have a tight relationship, you can go a step further by suggesting items to pick up and drop off, allowing them to quickly react with thumbs up or down emojis.
No one wants to think up a list of things for you to help with when they’re already struggling on the day-to-day of life with cancer.
Instead of “My cousin had the same cancer, so I understand what you’re going through,” say, “I’m sure you are probably very overwhelmed right now. If you ever want to chat with someone who went through something similar, I’m happy to connect you with my cousin.”
Remember: this isn’t about you. Check your ego at the door, even if you mean well.
Your cousin’s experience with cancer isn’t identical to this person’s. That’s why mentioning is okay, but suggesting to know what they’re going through isn’t. Let them make the first move on wanting the introduction after you’ve mentioned it.
Instead of “You’ll be fine,” say, “You are one of the strongest/bravest people I know.”
We tell toddlers, “You’ll be fine,” after they fall off the monkey bars. Don’t tell someone dealing with cancer that they’ll be fine. And recovery doesn’t equal “being fine.” Mental, physical, and emotional side effects of cancer can last years beyond remission.
Trade false reassurance with empowerment. Hype up your bud. It takes the strength of a thousand superheroes to face cancer. Brave is an understatement.
Instead of “Are you going to live?” say, “How are you feeling about everything?”
Your bud may be facing a really tough diagnosis, terminal or not. Doctors aren’t always 100% accurate (shocker), so asking about life expectancy can be a touchy subject. This information is not open for interrogation.
Confusion, fear, and regrets can take hold of someone dealing with severe sickness. Ask about feelings vs. something they can’t predict, like their life.
It’s not about checking a box. Supporting a friend who has or has had cancer requires empathy, empathy, and more empathy. A half-assed text message isn’t gonna cut it, chief. Use these phrases instead if you don’t know what to say. You may find it allows for great conversation and tangible ways for you to help your bud.