10 Things Never to Say or Do to a Cancer Patient

I wrote this in honor of my 30th year being cancer free. In April of 1984 I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Luckily it turned out alright and here I am 30 years later to tell you that cancer is not an automatic death sentence. I have since gone through cancer diagnoses and treatments of my husband, my mother, my brother and my father-in-law. Additionally, my mother-in-law and my aunt are also both cancer survivors. Here are my 10 things never to say or do to a cancer patient/survivor. Next post will have ideas for how to help friends and family members going through a cancer episode.

1) Don’t act like it is contagious because it isn’t. This is less of an issue now, but when I was diagnosed in 1984 many people actually took a step backwards when they found out, as if the cancer was contagious. By the time my husband had his cancer in 1997 and my brother had his in 2003, this reaction had mostly gone away. Thank goodness, because the last thing cancer patients need is to feel more isolated or alone.

2) Don’t take a huge gulp of air and squeal as if it is the end of the world. This reaction is scary to everyone and especially cancer patients. We are already frightened out of our minds and worried about it being the actual end of our world. Your reaction could scare people. So don’t over react.

3) Don’t start telling stories about how someone you know (or read about) healed their cancer just by thinking positive thoughts and meditating without other treatment. This really happened to my husband. A good friend told him that if he meditated correctly his cancer would just go away. One of my biggest fears was that he would decide to wait on having his cancer treatment to see if meditation would work first. Thank goodness he was realistic. He opted for surgery to remove the cancer AND meditation to feel better AND ayurvedic treatments for healing AND to give up red meat because he thought it would help. Telling cancer patients that they should be able to meditate their cancer away is patronizing; it blames them for their own illness by implying that their negative thoughts cause their cancer. Now I am a big believer in positive affirmations and that a positive outlook can bring about positive things, or at least make dealing with the negative ones a bit better. BUT making cancer patients feel worse for their own illness is not helpful and in fact can be dangerous. Anxiety, fear and depression are secondary cancer symptoms; you don’t need to make cancer patients more anxious fearful or depressed.

4) Don’t start telling stories about people who died from cancer. Really, this actually happened to me, and in fact still sometimes does when I reveal that I had malignant melanoma. I have heard about all sorts of people who died, or almost died, or had to have crippling surgeries. These are all fine stories to tell, just not to people going through a cancer adventure. Tell the stories to someone else or better yet, save these horror stories for campfires.

5) Don’t ever ask a skin cancer patient/survivor to look at a mole on your body that has you worried. This one happened to me from the world’s most self-centered women I have ever known. I revealed to her that I had had malignant melanoma and she actually pulled up her shirt to show me a mole that she was concerned about. There are important skin cancer signs that everyone on the planet should know about. The skin cancer community calls them the ABCDEs of skin cancer and they stand for Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, Evolving. No matter where you live, it is worthwhile to check out your moles and/or skin growths using your ABCDEs or with a dermatologist. But don’t ask skin cancer survivors to look at, diagnose or assure you that you are cancer free.

6) Don’t go to cancer patients for comfort and support about their cancer. If you are upset and need comforting, find someone else to go to. We had several people fall apart when my husband was diagnosed. They wanted us to comfort them. We were just barely holding on ourselves and had no reserves to comfort anyone other than each other and our kids.

7) Don’t prescribe treatments. Unless you are a physician, this is not your place. Second guessing cancer specialists is a national pastime. I am a huge believer in second opinions, alternative treatments, taking mega doses of vitamins, eating and drinking organic, practicing yoga, chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy and meditation. I do all of these things to help me feel in control of my health and well-being, which is what cancer patients/survivors need. Let’s face it, cancer is about cells in your body out of control and anything that helps cancer patients feel more in control is good in my book. For my husband’s cancer we had to choose between two different surgical options, one of which was more experimental at the time. We got a second opinion, made our choice and then went on from there. Having people want to revisit our decision was disheartening.

8) Don’t insist that they get seen by “the best” doctor. This one really burns me as if there is only one doctor in the whole world who is the only expert. I don’t buy it. There are lots of great doctors out there and there are also lots of crap ones. I don’t believe that there is only one expert. I know of plenty of people who have been treated by “the” experts and they still die or have negative outcomes. Don’t make cancer patients crazy, trying to get seen by someone in another city when they probably have doctors in their own backyard who are saving people’s lives every day.

9) Don’t tell cancer patients that they caused their own cancer. This one happens all the time and it is ridiculous. Telling people that they should have slept more, exercised more, eaten less, breastfed for longer, gotten married, gotten divorced, etc. is not helpful. All cancer patients spend some time thinking about what caused their cancer, most of us never really know. Personally I blame a very bad sunburn from when I was nine. It makes me feel better to think this and it doesn’t hurt anyone. But I bristle when anyone else tries to tell me why this happened to me. If you feel the need to analyze the source of someone’s cancer, become a wellness coach and give advice to people who will pay you.

10) Don’t do nothing or pretend like everything is alright. When I was diagnosed it was all I could think of, and when we were going through my husband’s cancer, again, I got obsessed. Ignoring what we were going through was strange. Our family was in crisis and we needed support. It felt like a huge drain of my energy to be with people who wanted to pretend that everything was all okay, because it wasn’t.

I always tell people that belonging to the cancer survivor club is one of the best clubs ever–it sure beats the alternative. Look for my suggestions on what to do to help your friends and relatives going through cancer diagnosis, treatment and recover in my next blog post.

Have you had a personal experience with cancer? Would love to hear your stories about what didn’t help in the comments section.

As a blogger, I enjoy sharing my ideas and thoughts with people, and I get a special thrill when someone leaves a comment. When you share my posts on social media sites, I jump up and down doing a happy dance. So thank you!

9 thoughts on “10 Things Never to Say or Do to a Cancer Patient

  1. Mary Honas

    Vicki is a friend who also a cancer survivor. Together we make prayer quilts for people and many of them have received a cancer diagnosis. We ask them first if they would like the quilt, made by their families and friends with our help. Making the prayer quilt gives their families and friends an outlet, a way to show appropriate care and concern in a tangible way. Everyone can tie a knot and say a prayer. The quilt is a physical sign of their love when words may fail us. And the quilt can be used whenever they need it–the middle of the night, in the hospital or treatment room, any time, any where.

    The prayer quilts are powerful is an amazing way. It’s hard to put into words and I’m rarely at a loss for words. 🙂

    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      Wow, what a great gift for someone going through the horrors of a cancer diagnosis. When my daughter was born, a group of friend got together and made me a baby quilt, that had prayers and well wishes for her health and happiness. I treasure it and plan to give it to hr someday when she becomes a mother. The prayer quilts that you make are a true blessing. Sounds amazing–thank you on behalf of cancer patients and survivors everywhere!

  2. Lorrie Goldin

    This is a terrific post, Heidi, so thoughtful and helpful. I’m also so glad you’re marking 30 years in the Cancer Survivors Club!

    In my own experience with being a club member for 1.5 years, these things bugged me: (1) People who said NOTHING WHATSOEVER in response to learning from me directly (yes, via email in some cases–a cancer patients’ prerogative in a world upended by cancer). I know that people don’t want to intrude, don’t know what to say, etc. Really, a simple email saying, “So sorry!” is all that’s needed. (2) This is an inverse corollary to the first thing, but I also didn’t like it when non-technophobic and non-family members refused to sign up on my community update site and would instead call frequently for updates because they didn’t want to deal with email. (3) My friend who responded to my telling her I would soon lose my hair with, “It’ just vanity, Lorrie.” I’m sure she really meant, “We love you no matter what,” but it’s burdensome to have to ferret out the good intentions embedded in insensitive remarks.

    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      Thanks Lorie, glad you are part of the survivors club too! Both my husband and I had our cancer adventures before email was ‘the bomb’ so we didn’t have the whole online electronic update thing. But I love reading posts on the forums or blogs or even email updates from friends spiraling through through medical crises. On a much more superficial level I find the same things going on with friends now who want updates on our 5 months of living in Australia. this is why I added a category to my blog. Too hard to update everyone individually, but am more than happy to respond to comments to my posts. More than happy! So thanks again for your comments.

  3. Tara @ IMightNeedaNap

    Heidi, thanks for sharing this with me. My MIL told me I needed to get my Daddy to Texas for treatment. (from GA) That I only had one chance to save my Daddy. I was livid and still carry some stuff in my heart about that–which I know I need to let go of. Daddy spent weeks at Emory University Hospital and they sent his biopsy and records all over the world–it was just a baffling case. Texas wasn’t going to fix it, even if my Daddy had been willing to get on a plane. Which he wasn’t. I didn’t even have to ask. Thank you for this. Important for everyone to know.

    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting, it give me such a thrill to read feedback on my posts! I know that people like your MIL might mean well, but they just have no idea on how devastating their comments can be. It is hard enough to be the support person for a loved one going through cancer, but to have other loved ones undermining us (not matter how well intentioned they are) is awful. Hope you find some healing because it sounds like you did all that you could to help your Daddy out and that he knew how much you loved him!

  4. Pingback: 6 Helpful Things to Say or Do for a Cancer Patient | The Art of Living Fully

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