What You Should and Shouldn't Say to Someone Diagnosed With Cancer

Unfortunately, when the time comes to begin the intimate and sometimes awkward conversation of "I have/had cancer," it will produce mixed reviews. While the majority of feedback will be positive and supportive, the brash among us will offer slightly hurtful responses instead.
01/06/2015 08:23 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

For those diagnosed, fighting cancer or being a survivor undoubtedly takes a major place in our identity. But being a survivor isn't all that we are. We're still human. We still have feelings. Unfortunately, when the time comes to begin the intimate and sometimes awkward conversation of "I have/had cancer," it will produce mixed reviews. While the majority of feedback will be positive and supportive, the brash among us will offer slightly hurtful responses instead. Maybe it's because the conversation can be so uncomfortable, or because unless you've known the battle yourself, it's hard to know what is appropriate to say. Here's a few comments I've encountered in my 10 years since cancer that I can attest no cancer survivor wants to hear:

"I'm so sorry."

Cancer fighters don't need pity. While we all wish it hadn't happened, cancer happening isn't something we can change or control now. What we can control is our attitude about it. Cancer isn't something to feel sorry about. It's an occasion to rise our swords to. Tell us you're with us, that you're fighting beside us. Tell us you believe in our ability to overcome it, emotionally and physically. Tell us you're proud of us, but don't ever say you're sorry for us.

"Couldn't you have done something to prevent it?"

As outrageous as it sounds, I have been told by more than one person that if I had just eaten better, a cleaner or preservative free diet perhaps, I wouldn't have gotten cancer. I've been told if I had just prayed more, it wouldn't have happened. While you may believe all these reasons to be completely legitimate, they don't help me. Keep these opinions to yourself, and keep the conversation positive.

"If it had happened to me, I wouldn't have done A, B, C."

There's two sides of this: The first is that people often like to share what they would have done if they'd been given a month to live. They like to dream up the adventures they would have gone on and all the places they would have wanted to see. I love these kinds of conversations, even though I'm asking: "Then why aren't you going on those adventures!?"

The second is less inspiring. On the other side of the same coin is people telling you that they wouldn't have chosen your treatment, or wouldn't have undergone chemo at all. This response doesn't feel insightful or interesting; it feels insulting. It sounds as though you are criticizing my personal choices, the choices that changed and saved my life. Chemo is usually a life-or-death equation, not a matter of opinion. It's another instance when keeping it to yourself would have been much more tactful.

Here are some statements and questions cancer fighters would love to hear more, and will help turn the conversation from one of sadness into one of triumph and celebration:

"What did you learn from that experience?"

In the past 10 years of remission, I can count on one hand the amount of times I've been asked what I learned from cancer. But without any doubt, this is the aspect of fighting cancer I'm most proud of, and most excited to share, which I do on my blog HerAfter.com. Cancer teaches you about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses and dreams, it teaches you your fears, it reveals to you all the beauty of life, and profoundly changes your relationship with the present moment. While I still hear "I wish that hadn't happened to you" more often, my response is always, "Yes, but I wouldn't give up what cancer taught me for the world." So ask us! We'd love to share!

"What is your relationship with it now?"

This question will provide insight into how we view our diagnosis now, and how big of a part of our lives it is. We can tell you if we're proud of it, angry about it, or if we don't want to talk about it after this conversation. We can tell you ways we're helping other fighters and how you might help our efforts. And it will be our chance to let you know if we're still battling it in any way, and how that might affect our everyday lives (and thus, how you can be respectful of our needs).

"You are beautiful."

Any kind feedback you have to share, whether it's that you like our new hair (or with no hair at all!) or that you think the story is inspiring, let us know. It's heartwarming to hear that our fight and what we went through changed someone else's perspective as well.

"I'm so glad you fought."

Be happy for us! Be happy with us! Let us know you're proud and that you're happy we stuck around and didn't let cancer win! That's the greatest victory of all.

It can be incredibly difficult to open up about a battle with cancer, whether it's ongoing or happened years ago. If you get a chance to have this conversation with a fighter, the best thing you can always do is be present. This moment, and all moments, wasn't promised to any of us; cancer survivors know that better than anyone. This conversation might not have happened, but we fought hard to be here for it. Enjoy it, be in it with us, be present.

Being awake and conscious to the moment right here and now with us, and with everyone you love, is the greatest gift you can give.