What NOT to Do When Someone You Love Has Cancer


In a previous article, I shared thoughts on what to say and do that might help when you learn a loved one has cancer. As a Pastor, a Chaplain (in a cancer hospital), and someone who’s living with cancer, I can also attest there are things said and done which are definitely not helpful. I’m sure it’s not deliberate, but that doesn’t always soften the blow to the Person With Cancer (PWC).

I’ve compiled eight suggestions about things to avoid, drawing from my own experience as well as conversations with other cancer survivors.

When Someone you love has cancer, DON’T…

1. Focus on Appearance. Cancer takes a physical toll; the person might look pale, or thinner or tired…or bald. They could be missing an arm, a leg, or their breasts. Calling attention to any of those elements only makes them feel self-conscious or fearful. (And it’s not like they don’t already know!)

2. Pound the Clichés. It can sometimes be overwhelming to hear sugar-coated statements like “Keep up a positive attitude.” It’s even worse to be hit with a cliché as a form of a reprimand for expressing any kind of negative emotion: “Stop saying that. You are going to beat this!”

And not to offend, but this includes the well-meaning spiritual axioms as well. (“God won’t put more on us than we can handle.” or “God will heal you.”) It’s not about the truth of these statements, but what if they feel that God has put more on them than they can handle. Perhaps after losing their breasts, they don’t think it’s all going to turn out good. We can’t demand how they perceive what’s happening to them.

Clarification: I admit, this one is a bit difficult to balance. We don’t want our loved one to lose faith or give up. (Which is not the same as being realistic when it comes to prolonging treatments that aren’t working.) And yes, a positive attitude is important for their recovery, so it’s good to encourage them. But that can’t be imposed or required.
If you truly think your loved one with cancer is in despair and/or in danger of giving up, share your concern with them. Ask if they’d like to talk. That way, you are respecting their feelings, but you’re showing genuine concern.
The two suggestions I can offer: Listen to them, and if they aren’t open to talk, then pray for them.

3. Assign Blame.

For the record, assigning “blame” also applies to those who need to attach “religious” significance (“God just wanted to get your attention.”) or assign some spiritual lesson to be learned. (“There’s a purpose for everything.”) It includes those who see sickness as the result of some “sinful” behavior, which is merely a different kind of cause and effect. (“You sinned, you got cancer!”) It is particularly and especially directed at those who assign a supernatural, malevolent origin (Satan or demons) to all sickness. (“You have a demon of cancer which needs to be expelled.”) If you believe this, (1) seriously?, and (2) you will not be helpful sharing it, so please…for heaven’s sake…keep it to yourself!

Example: Melissa Ethridge’s breast cancer was used by Michelle Bachmann, who said she hoped the cancer would be an “opportunity” for Melissa to repent and stop being a lesbian. When I first learned of my cancer, I had a “friend” write and tell me it was caused by my homosexuality. (Not sure how he explains straight people with this cancer?)

4. Compare. I imagine that most everyone with cancer has heard the stories of those who’ve had “the same kind of cancer,” and are now doing fine. We’ve also heard of those who had chemo or radiation or whatever, and had no side effects or no reactions. (“My uncle didn’t miss a day of work…”) When someone shares that they have cancer, we shouldn’t try and move the conversation to anything or anyone else. (“I know what you’re going through, my uncle was so sick…” or “That’s nothing compared to what my uncle went through…”)

Surprisingly, I had to have this conversation with one of my doctors, who could not understand why I was having such a difficult time with the treatments. “Most people don’t have these reactions,” he said. “Well, I am…so what can we do about it?”

You definitely don’t want to make it about you, which includes talking about what you would do. (“Well, I certainly wouldn’t let them shoot me full of chemicals.”) Even if you’ve had cancer, your experience is not THE defining one; each person’s cancer is different, even with the “same” cancer. Everyone’s treatment is different…and their body will respond in a different way…even with the identical treatment.

Clearly, it’s meant to be inspiring, or empathetic, but it can also send the subtle message that the PWC isn’t allowed to have their own journey. Or they are in some kind of competition with the maladies of others.  What if they aren’t doing fine? What if the treatments make them too sick to work? They could worry about disappointing you if they don’t measure up to the folks in your stories.

5. Tell Horror Stories. It’s not helpful to relate all the gory details of those you know who’ve had “this same cancer.” (“My grandmother lost her leg…” or “My uncle died of that.” ) You are there to comfort, love, support and encourage your loved one, not be Wes Craven!

6. Give Unsolicited Advice. If you talk to most cancer patients, you’ll learn they have folks in their life who like to tell them what to do. Some of it may be good advice, often it’s not. Generally it’s well-meaning, with the best of intentions. But almost always, it’s unsolicited.

Giving advice is not the same as giving encouragement. There’s a difference is giving directives and showing support. Your loved one probably doesn’t want…don’t need…more obligations. If you are asked, give your opinion. Otherwise, love them and most importantly, listen to them.
More on this one in a future article

7. Second-guess the Doctor(s). You are probably not a doctor, must less an expert in oncology. So if you tell a PWC to ignore the advice of their doctor, or challenge the instructions of medical professionals, you are potentially confusing them at a time when many life and decisions are being made. I know that I don’t go to my loved ones for medical advice; I need them for support, comfort and encouragement.

Clarification: Obviously with these last two I’m not talking about those who will help make those crucial medical decisions. (e.g., spouse, partner, parent) That’s part of the relationship and of course they will be involved in the decision, through counsel, prayer, talking with doctors, weighing options, etc. But in the end, it’s still the decision of the one with cancer.

Your loved one is probably afraid, confused, anxious, and possibly dealing with pain. You don’t want to add to it. The best thing you can do is to love them. To support and encourage them. To listen to them. They will know that you have their best interests at heart.