When I first found out I was diagnosed with cancer, one of the biggest hurdles to navigate was figuring out how to share the news—and how to receive the wide range of responses. From acquaintances wanting to avoid me and the C-word at all costs, to friends weaving it into every sentence and asking very, very personal medical questions in public, I found that people would often mirror my energy and reflect or project their own experiences and emotions.
My go-to mantra when people asked me how I was doing? “Strong, steady, and ready.” Which was absolutely true and seemed to work in every scenario, like a good rally cry before plunging into the dark unknown. I didn’t want to be patronized, pitied or avoided. I wanted to help people find the words that would be most helpful to me (and them) in any given moment.
But that didn’t stop people from saying the wrong thing—and boy, are there some wrong things. Here are 10 things to never say to someone going through cancer. (And yes, these were all actually said to me).
1. "You have early-stage cancer! You really don’t have it that bad.”
I wasn’t sure if my cancer cells would turn up against me someday or somewhere else in my body. Or if more abnormal scans were in my no longer guaranteed future. I experienced an onslaught of stage 1 survivor guilt, knowing and meeting other women who were having a harder, longer, late-stage journey. When I would see someone wearing a wig, head scarf, or with all-too-familiar drains peeking out under hoodies in the waiting room like jellyfish tentacles, my heart ached in solidarity.
Many tend to want to absorb and internalize other people’s suffering to soften the blow—theirs and ours. I may still have had my hair and not have had to have chemo or radiation. In fact, I may have looked “normal” on the outside. But inside? I was exhausted, drained, brittle, and broken. Even at stage 1, I still went through so many of the same twists, turns, and terror along the way: waiting for results, processing hard news, trying to be strong.
Please be extra sensitive with words, stares, and advice—you never know who’s on a frightening freefall or quiet comeback, no matter the stage.
2. “You’d never even know you have cancer. You’re even wearing makeup!”
Saying “You’d never even know you have cancer” dismisses all the pain and progress in one deflating fell swoop. Sometimes wearing makeup when you feel like a faint ghost of yourself (and your former life) is all you can do as an act of daily defiance. I would wear makeup to feel and look like myself—and for my iPhone face recognition to “see me” and unlock my iPhone.
If we want to wear a little rosy lip gloss to summon a smile or a bronzy shimmer to remember what a sun-kissed, post-yoga glow looks like and “feels” like? Know that this is one small way for us to literally “face” the day and the unknown as our former, recognizable selves. We still have cancer, make-up or not.
3. “I’m glad it’s you and not me. I could never do what you are doing.”
Hearing how outwardly relieved you are to be “normal” and unaffected reinforces a form of health privilege. Cancer patients don’t really have another choice. Being reminded that the universe “chose me” over you to become a braver, bolder version of myself can be daunting on our best and worst of days. It also reveals how seemingly random and unfair a diagnosis can be.
If you got cancer, you would find your way, too, just like I did and still am. And, yes, I am actually glad it wasn’t you, or anyone else I care about. But that should go without saying.
4. “Why are you having a double mastectomy when you only have it in one breast?”
This is such a bold personal decision, and ultimately, my decision. A lot of thought, tears, and many sleepless nights went into this. Sometimes, when I was having a bad day, an innocent comment could put me in a defensive tailspin, hurling me back into a distressing whirlpool, un-knitting an already delicate life and health decision still hanging in the balance.
Please trust that I know what is best for my body and mind right now. Oh, and FYI, though cancer initially only showed up in my right breast, we later found it in the left breast. Thankfully, I listened to my inner voice and intuition above all else, which literally saved me. (You can, too.)
Don’t make people with cancer doubt their incredibly personal medical decisions. Support them unquestioningly. It’s their choice.
5. “You’re so young. My grandma had it, and she was so much older than you.”
When I would hear things like this, I felt judged or, worse yet, written off. Words have power and energy that outlive and echo beyond the present moment. Please remember we are in an open, unknowing, vulnerable pink sponge state, absorbing and reflecting everything in high-def.
Choose kindness. There is no good time, better time, or right age for cancer to present itself. I know for me, time became even more precious. Living in the moment took on new meaning. Taking things one day at a time was a win. I couldn’t think about getting older or being younger anymore. I could only focus on getting better.
6. “Hey, at least you’re getting a boob job out of this! How big are you going?”
Please don’t compare a mastectomy to a breast augmentation or tell me about someone you know who had a boob job that went “wrong” after a few years and had to be re-done. Not ready to think or talk about any of this right now!
A cancer patient who may be undergoing a reconstruction or another big surgery is still processing everything, including their unfolding diagnosis. Focusing on the next scan, the next day. The next moment, thought, and breath. Maybe I’ll be able to see the humor in your boob joke, but right now? No. Just, no, not yet—unless I joke with you about it first to give you the green light, OK?
7. “I saw this article about removing implants for safety recalls. Thought you should know ASAP.”
Well-meaning friends forwarded urgent blog posts on natural remedies and implant removals right after I had a painful reconstruction. A friendly FYI may be well-intended, but may also leave us feeling unraveled or unnerved, unleashing a freight train of fear screeching in from all the dark corners of our formerly restful minds. It was paralyzing to hear any seeds of doubt while I was questioning everything in my life and healing at a tender time in emotional and physical recovery. All I was trying to do was trust and follow doctor’s orders as an act of faith and survival. This can be SO hard, especially with so many opinions and stories of best to worst case scenarios.
Please be gentle and tread lightly and lovingly. Don’t give us more reasons to stress and leave the friendly FYIs to our doctors.
8. “I’m going to send you / make you / buy you (fill-in-the-blank.)”
While acts of service and gifts may be well-intended, pressure to be gracious and accommodating as a patient can be exhausting in recovery. We or our families may have special diet or food allergies or may feel nauseous from meds and scents, so buying candles or bringing certain dishes may not go as intended.
Offer DoorDash, Uber Eats or Instacart. Make a grocery run or Target run. Gift cards and get well gift baskets can be lifesavers, too. Suggest leaving Starbucks orders on front stoops at 10:00am every Saturday morning. Check in to see what sounds good or even if there is room in the fridge or freezer that week. And gently asking, “Are you open to _____?” helps us feel as though we still have agency and a say in what happens, what shows up, and when in our life. (Unlike cancer).
9. “Oh, this is nothing. You’re gonna be fine. It’s a small blip on the radar…”
I was definitely not “fine”—which felt out of reach and out of sight. The pink C-shaped shadow was always looming, never really out of my peripheral vision. Cancer can feel ever-present, lurking like a phantom photo-bombing every moment of your life, rising out of thin air and nowhere all at once. There’s a lot of pressure to make sure everyone else is feeling OK, especially—and even more so—when I wasn’t feeling OK.
Please know that many of us have a “new now” that feels nothing like before cancer. It never feels quite behind us. Many of us become conditioned to be hyper-vigilant, always scanning our life landscape with the proverbial radar for something—anything—cancer-related to resurface, no matter how far we’ve come.
10. “I saw this episode of Botched and…”
Oh, c’mon. Just don’t. When someone said this to me, I had to interrupt them immediately and interject with, “You know what? I’m not ready for this right now. I just went through a big change and need to manage my energy and mindset.”
In the end, some things are definitely better left unsaid. And sometimes, a well-meaning remark may miss the mark due timing or tone. Sometimes you just have to see the humor, smile, and take a few deep breaths. Again. And again. Please remember, everyone is doing the best they can, and sometimes your diagnosis, strength, or journey may be hard for others to process in real time.
One of the most helpful things shared with me during my diagnosis?
“You’ll find your own way through this. I’m going to be by your side when you want me to be right here to help you or support you. And I’m going to give you the space and grace when you need that, too.” For sure, everything is better said with kindness and tenderness. We are all trying to find the words—and a way through this together.