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What not to say to a cancer patient

What not to say to a cancer patient

I decided to put a list together of what has been said to me during my journey and why they should never be repeated to someone who has cancer, or has had cancer.  If I wasn’t on the receiving end of these comments, I don’t think I would have thought they were that bad, but because I was the one with the cancer I want to share some insight on what not to say.

I know that people mean well, but maybe after reading some of these, maybe some people will think before they speak. I have definitely learned a thing or two, that’s for sure!

  1. “Why do you think this happened to you?”
    I was so perplexed when I was asked this question; I had no idea how to answer except by saying “I’m not sure.” Believe me, we are just as shocked as you are when diagnosed.
  2. “Did you drink a lot of milk, eat red meat, or consume genetically modified foods?”
    This was another one that shocked me. This question feels like someone is implying that a person did this to themselves. We all know that there are contributing factors, but nobody deserves this and for anyone to imply otherwise is wrong and hurtful. And as we all have learned over and over again, this disease is random and does not discriminate.
  3. “If I had cancer, I would never get radiation or chemo.”
    This is wrong on so many levels, however, I will not judge anyone who decides to go an alternate route for treatment, but it’s just not for me. So, why should this statement never be made? Because you don’t know what you would do until you are in the situation.
  4. “Well at least you only had to have radiation and didn’t have to have chemo.”
    This one probably hurt my feelings the most. When people said this, it was like they weren’t validating my cancer and they were making me feel like I wasn’t sick, but I was sick. I would often say to my husband “well I guess if I was bald then people would take this whole thing more seriously.” Cancer is cancer; it IS serious, no matter what! Believe me; getting your skin burned every day for six weeks, is neither easy nor fun.
  5. “It’s finally over; you’re all done with cancer.”
    This part of the journey is over, yes, however, it’s really never over. You’re never “done.” I have two reminders every day; once when I get in the shower and see my scars and once when I take my tamoxifen which I have to take for the next five years. So it’s really not over.
  6. “All you have to do now is take a pill (tamoxifen)…no big deal.”
    You’re right, no big deal at all.  I have to take a pill for the next 5 years which will prevent me from having a child. I had to go through a brutal round of fertility treatments only two months after being diagnosed with cancer. My back was against the wall and we had to make a decision quickly to ensure we have some options. So, to some it might not be that big of a deal, but believe me, it is.

I honestly believe that none of these statements came from a malicious place.  I think sometimes people just don’t know what to say so instead of saying nothing, they say hurtful things without meaning to. Here is my advice, the best thing to say is “I’m here for you, and will do anything to help in any way possible.” It’s really that simple and means a lot!

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  1. Thank you so much for the information. It’s amazing what people will say without realizing how insensitive their comments really are.
    I, too, have always been unsure of what to say or not say. So in some cases I have said nothing. Now I know exactly how I will respond.
    Thank you.

  2. Hello! I am also a cancer survivor…I actually just hit ten years in remission and it went by so fast! I think people say these things because they don’t know what to say and have never been in that situation. As you said, they don’t say it maliciously.

    But, I didn’t take offense to any of these when people said it. What I did is try to educate them, keep an awesome attittude and made sure my friends/family monitored their health better. If it could happen to me at 20, it could happen to anyone.

    What I am trying to say is this, keep very, very positive and don’t let what people say get you down. If you are around the wrong people, then try to be around those that lift you up! Good luck with your remission!!

  3. Jeannine, I can’t remember exactly what I said when I heard that you had cancer – but I do remember it really hit me hard. We weren’t really “friends” before the cancer – we kinda grew up together – but weren’t close… But something about the way you informed us on Facebook just touched my soul and tugged at my strings…
    I’m not sure I said anything great – I’m fairly sure I didn’t say anything too stupid – but I remember putting together a heartfelt response.
    I’m thankful you put this blog together to inform others on what they can say… Whether it’s your mom or your best friend, your cousin or a co-worker… Just listening to the person and validating their feelings seem to go a pretty long way.
    Thank you for all you are doing along this incredible journey; to both inform others and help heal yourself and your support team. You’re such an amazing person, so strong and brave!

  4. Jeannine,

    You are an amazing young woman. You are not only inspiring women walking this journey, but you are showing women that regular physicals are important and providing knowledge and awareness of how to respond to someone who is ill.

    People don’t always know what to say, but I love your suggestion that you should just say “I’m here for you”. So if I had not said it before. I’m here for you!!!!

    At the end of day, it does not matter what people do or say, because you can do all things through Christ who strengthen you (Philippians 4:13), which you have clearly shown.

  5. Dear Jeannine, I, too, am a Breast Cancer survivor; 12 years to be exact. As a person of faith, I believe that what I experienced 12 years ago was part of God’s plan for my life. I didn’t come to that realization on my own, however, but from a 10 year old child of Lutheran faith who was suffering an inoperable brain tumor. She came to my counseling office one time two weeks prior to my finding my own tumor; never saw her again. She was like an angel from God who popped in to prepare me for my own encounter with cancer. If that child could believe that her tumor was part of God’s plan for her life, I could, too.

    With that belief in mind, I was able to speak openly about my situation to people who had no idea how to deal with my new set of circumstances. The more open I was with them, the more appropriate and comforting their responses were for me.

    They became journey mates with me during those initial days, weeks, months. Now, 12 years later, I appear “normal again” to them; my crisis behind me and them, but every day, I am the one who is still mindful of that time in my life. I am continually reminded by my odd shaped breast, my scar, my continued contact with the medical community who still look at me through that cancer grid, that I once was a victim of cancer and could be again. For now, I am a survivor by the grace of God. I look at life differently; enjoying every day as if it were my last; not sweating the small stuff; taking time to smell the daisies; picking my battles.

    Most of all, I am grateful to God for that experience and for being my strength in times of trouble and even now as a survivor. I have had many opportunities over the years to comfort others as I have been comforted because I have been where they are currently. There is no explanation for why it happens, but we can use it in a good way to help those who do not yet know what we know; that there is hope beyond the diagnosis; there is life to be lived fully.

    My story is one of hope, and that is my wish for you and for all women/men who encounter the disease.

    God Bless, Carol

  6. It’s been about 13 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34, and the most shocking question put to me at that time still rings in my ears. “How long do they give you to live?” (prefaced by “I’m sorry to hear you’re dying.”) certainly caught me off-guard.
    Like one of the other commenters, I took a very positive attitude and tried to be patient and to educate people who were insensitive, but someone who would assume I wouldn’t beat it or that I’d be prepared to discuss my pending death with an arms-length acquaintance was simply a negative person who I avoided therafter.
    Good luck with your health and may you have many years ahead of you to appreciate on a whole new level.

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About the Author

Jeannine Canino Bieda
Jeannine Canino Bieda

Jeannine Canino Bieda has worked in the Options industry for the last 14 years and cannot imagine doing anything else; she enjoys all the craziness, the good, the bad & the ugly! She is a breast cancer survivor. She is married to the love of her life and does not have any children but hopefully that will change one day. She is a proud Southsider but lives in Evanston now because it’s where her husband is from; she learned quickly, you can take the girl out of the Southside but you can’t take the Southside out of the girl! She is highly addicted to reality shows & gossip magazines and is not ashamed of it.