NHL Cyberfamily

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma support


What do you say to a cancer patient?

What to say or not to say

It is always very difficult to know what to say when a friend or loved one is diagnosed with cancer. Below are some tips about what you should or should not say to a cancer patient.

  • Don’t mention the cancers or serious illnesses of other people you know as a comparison or to try to show a good outcome. Your friend/loved one is a different person and might not have the same outcome. If you know someone else with a similar story ask your friend if they would like to talk to that person.
  • Don’t suggest you know what it is like. You may empathise with their plight but you don’t “know” it. Ask them about how they feel instead. Ask them if they want to talk about it. But don’t pressure them if they say no.
  • There are not any good cancers. Even the ones with the lowest death rate and highest cure rate are frightening to the patient. Don’t try to diminish their fear by telling them that it could be worse if they had a different cancer.
  • A patient will experience some physical changes. Don’t try to diminish how they feel, by saying things like, “Well at least the weight loss is a good thing”
  • Do not offer any advice about alternative therapies and other treatment options. You are not a doctor. Leave medical advice to the professionals.
  • Never suggest the patient is to blame due to their lifestyle habits. A lifetime smoker or drinker does not need to be told it is all their fault, especially since it may not have anything to do with their lifestyle.
  • Do not pressure the patient to keep a positive attitude, nor ever suggest it will improve their odds. Just because a person feels depressed does not mean they deserve to lose the fight. Read this article about the “tyranny of positive thinking”

The tyranny of positive thinking

Jimmie Holland MD wrote a book, "The Human side of cancer" with a chapter called "The Tyranny of positive thinking". It addresses the stress cancer patients must endure when people tell them that thinking positively will give them a better outcome. This is not only untrue, but places additional stress on the patient to live up to unreal expectations. Here are some quotes.

  • Patients are frightened. Remember your goal is to listen not to talk. If the patient wants to tell you about their prognosis then just LISTEN. If their prognosis is bad do not show disrespect by telling them they are wrong and they will survive.
  • Last but not least, this is about them not you. Do not trouble your friend/loved one by unburdening your fears and feelings on them. This is your time to keep quiet and just listen. Encourage them to talk while you listen. When you tell them how you feel you leave them feeling you don’t care about them. It is OK to tell them you are at a loss for words, or to say nothing. Just listen!