Words Matter, Especially with Cancer
We have the best intentions as we attempt to console a loved one with cancer, but our own emotions and history with the patient often “color” the words we end up saying. Consider these statements you should never say to a cancer patient.
1. I know how you feel.
You say this to convey a desire to share in the patient’s pain, anger or fear. The truth is you never really know how another person feels, even under the best circumstances. The patient is, herself, still grappling with her feelings. Saying such words comes across as presumptuous. It also moves attention from the patient and turns into something about you. This can upset the patient and actually elicit a retort of “Do you, really? How could you; you don’t have cancer.” With your unconscious utterance you’ve managed to make the patient angry and sad because you’re healthy and she isn’t. Instead, say the truth. “I cannot begin to imagine how you feel but I am willing to listen anytime you want to talk.”
2. You’ll be fine.
This is meant to make the patient feel that things are not so bad and to show your confidence in her ability to get well. But even a medical expert will not say such words until completion of treatment with conclusive test results showing improvement; maybe not even then. You can know a person pretty well but still be a poor judge of her cancer-coping capabilities. Such words demonstrate a lack of awareness and inability with handling the realities of illness. The expression also sounds offhandedly dismissive and diminishes the seriousness of the situation. Instead, a factual statement will be more encouraging. “I know people with cancer who have survived and now lead normal lives” or “There are complementary, integrative treatments with very doable body-mind-spirit approaches.”
3. There must be a mistake. You look so healthy!
You’re trying to be positive but the patient will recognize it as something familiar–denial. She may have succeeded in accepting the situation or she may, in fact, still be in denial. Either way, your remark will require the patient to convince you of her existing cancer, something she’s probably not motivated to focus her energy on. Instead, present gentle questions about seeking a second or third opinion to reconfirm the diagnosis. More importantly, suggest that she explore a wide range of treatment options including integrative methods. “I have a friend with cancer who consulted with a nutritional oncologist whose complementary application of diet adjustments and supplementation supports conventional treatment. Do you want me to set an appointment for you?”
4. The answer is in prayer.
Believing in something bigger than cancer is comforting and truly helpful for a cancer patient. Perhaps you have witnessed healing with laying on of hands and are totally convinced this is the answer. Faith, however, is a very personal choice with individual ways of practicing. Remember, it’s about the cancer patient’s belief; not yours. Bringing a group of strangers to perform a ritual on a patient who is uncomfortable with or not fully convinced will only raise stress levels. If her belief is as strong as yours, guard against the possibility of her clinging to blind faith and depending totally on prayers without taking necessary, practical steps for recovery. Offer instead to be with her in prayer. Let her know you always pray for her. “You are in my prayers. Prayer powerfully supports healing.”
5. Now is the time to fix your will.
As with the other remarks, this too is well-intended. It comes from a level-headed, practical mindset of being organized for any eventuality. But when you say it to someone who just shared her cancer news, you send a disheartening message because you focused on the worst case scenario. Death is a very real thought for a cancer patient but so are hope and healing. There is a place in cancer for addressing practical and legal concerns that will affect the patient’s loved ones but the time for such is not upon sharing a recent diagnosis. From your practical mindset, offer perhaps to coordinate her leave from work and obtain medical insurance clearance for treatment. “If you want, I can liaise with your boss and human resources department.”
6. Poor you.
These words are a knee-jerk reaction. They tumble out when the speaker verbalizes thoughts unchecked. It usually comes with a spontaneous hug or hand grasp. The goal is to give comfort but the result is the exact opposite. The patient suddenly feels self-pity and may even break
down in tears. She has very likely entertained those same words for quite a while in her mind and heart and may, in fact, be trying to push the thought away. Such remark is not helpful, is even harmful. If those are the only words that come to mind, then just be silent. There are no acceptable replacement words.
Cancer is difficult to live with as a patient. It’s sometimes even more difficult for family and friends who end up constantly over-thinking what they say and do in an effort to be sensitive while also handling their own fear, anger and sadness. It is vital to process feelings and decompress from stress with your own support group. Doing so will enable you to help your loved one with positive words and affirmative action.
We invite you to watch Dr. Gunes webinar: “An Introduction to Complementary Oncology”. This video will help you in understanding the principles of Complementary Cancer Treatments.
If you require assistance or have questions about cancer treatment options, please send our specialists a message.