What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient

I’ve had a lot of time to sit around and think since my surgery. And one of the things that I ponder is all the stupid things I used to say and think about cancer.

Like most people lucky enough not to have personally dealt with the disease, I didn’t really understand how it worked. I’m still no expert, but I know a great deal more now than I once did. That knowledge makes me cringe at some of the things I used to think and say.

Outside my own transgressions, I’ve had a lot of well-meaning people say some pretty ridiculous things to me. I know it comes from a good place, and I also know that most people struggle with finding the right thing to say to someone with cancer. They want to help. But some of the things they say are pretty unhelpful. And some are downright rude and/or hurtful.

Here are some of the worst/most common things people have said to me that I would advise people to avoid when interacting with people battling cancer:

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“You know eating/drinking meat/sugar/alcohol/etc., causes cancer.”
During my first appointment following my diagnosis, I met with a nutritionist who gave me a list of food-related cancer myths. What she told me was this: Yes, eating a plant-based diet with lean protein is best for cancer patients. But, it’s best for everyone, and it has nothing to do with cancer. There is just not enough research definitively linking any food/drink to cancer. Yes, there have been studies that have mentioned certain foods could cause an increased risk, but these findings are not widespread enough to officially draw a direct causal link to cancer.

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“You know your deodorant/lotion/makeup/soap causes cancer.”
No. Just no. This is even worse than the food one. There is no solid medical evidence linking any personal grooming products such as deodorant to cancer. Most of the time, you’ll hear these claims made by people/companies peddling “natural” body products, which, to me, is disgusting. To use the fear of cancer as a marketing ploy is really beyond the pale. My deodorant did not cause my cancer. My genetics did.

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“There’s a cure for cancer, but the government/pharmaceutical companies won’t ever allow it to be discovered/used because they would lose too much money.”
I must admit, I’m guilty of saying this one in the past. And of all the wrong things people say, this one sticks in my craw the most now. The truth is, there is no one cure for cancer. There aren’t five cures for cancer. Because cancer is an incredibly complex disease. Even within one type–breast cancer, for instance–there are so many different variations that change the way it’s treated, the way it grows and whether or not the patient survives. For example, breast cancer patients can have one of two different types of gene mutation that can cause their disease (BRCA1 and BRCA2), or they might not have the mutation at all. Their cancer could be estrogen receptive, progesterone receptive or HER2 positive. Or it could be a triple negative or any combination of the three. There are so many variables that finding a “cure” that address all of them all is damn-near impossible.
On top of all that, this kind of statement spits in the face of all the intelligent, dedicated people out there in the medical industry fighting cancer every day. People like my wonderful oncologist, who not only has a professional stake in this battle with his years of medical training and experience, but also a personal stake since his own wife is a breast cancer survivor. If there was a cure, he would be the first one doling it out.

There are so many things you can say to a cancer patient. “I’m here for you.” “I hope you’re feeling good.” “I love you.” If you want to be helpful, offer to make food or do chores. But unless your friend or loved one asks, don’t offer your medical advice. Because trust me, they probably don’t want to hear it.

And if you’d like to learn more about the disease from a factual, research-based source, I highly recommend visiting the American Cancer Society website.

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