An experienced chaplain gives a list of eight things you should try to avoid saying.
(Chaplain with Hope Has Arrived)
As a chaplain, I have thought a lot about what not to say to someone who has cancer. The following observations are based on interactions with hundreds of people I have personally known and walked with who have faced cancer, including my own wife.
Recognizing that our words have power, we must remember that the people we speak to are likely facing the most significant challenge of their lives. Finding just the right words to say should involve not only a lot of listening but also putting aside our own agenda in order to meaningfully care for the person who is suffering.
Knowing what not to say to someone who has cancer is a lot easier to identify than knowing what thoughtfully could be said.
Many well-intentioned people will use worn-out clichés and one-liners that often do more harm than good. Such words inadvertently take the focus off the person we are trying to help, and put it on us.
Here’s what many years of chaplaincy have taught me not to say.
I know exactly how you feel.
No one knows exactly how another person feels! Even if you have had cancer yourself, you don’t know what words other people would use to describe how they feel. So, don’t say “I know exactly how you feel.”
Instead, you can ask, “Does having cancer open up any new fears you never had to face before? Would you be willing to tell me how you feel?” If what they say fits your experience, then you can tell them how you feel. Your primary interest should be to affirm the feelings expressed by the person with the cancer and not presume that you already know.
Well, at least your cancer is treatable.
Add this saying to the top of your list for what not to say to someone who has cancer.
To say, “at least your cancer is treatable” is dismissive. When you say the words, “well at least . . .” this is almost like saying, “it’s not as bad as you think it is.”
It would be more helpful to ask a question in this situation. “Is this type of cancer treatable? What have your doctors told you about treatment options?” Those are much better things to say.
You are such a strong and brave person. You can beat this.
This is another common example of what not to say to someone with cancer, even though it is very well-intentioned. Don’t tell them they are brave because they may not be. Don’t tell them they are strong because they may think of themselves as weak.
Your words, well-meant, are still off-target and could lead them to think, “Wow, you really don’t know me at all. If you’re expecting me to be like that, it’s not going to happen.”
Also, telling them they’re strong and brave may cause them to worry about disappointing you. Be careful to not put additional pressure on someone who is already feeling a lot of pressure!
The reality is, it’s not your responsibility to cheer them up. Your purpose is to help them share about what is important to them, to let them set the agenda. You could ask a question like, “What do you know to be true about your personality that will help you face this new diagnosis of cancer?” Let them tell you what they perceive to be their own personal strengths and weaknesses.
Just call me and let me know if you need anything.
Sometimes, this is a very genuine statement about wanting to help. More often than not most people are silently thinking, I hope they don’t call me and ask for help.
It’s more reassuring to say something like, “I’ve already told you that I care about you; and that what happens to you matters to me. I want you to think about what’s the best way I can help. Please tell me some specific things I can do.” And then you can follow up with them, by calling them or texting them in a few days.
It’s not about putting the emphasis on your willingness to help. Rather, it is saying, I believe you know your needs better than I do. May I ask you to think about what those needs are, and then I will follow up with help! In that way you are affirming not only that you care but that you will personally address the identified needs.
I can imagine what it must be like to have been told you have cancer.
No, you can’t imagine what it is like! You don’t possess the capacity to know everything about another person, let alone all of the personal experiences that shape his response to the diagnosis of cancer. This is another one of those assumptions to add to the list of what not to say to someone who has cancer.
It would be to your credit as a listener–and far more beneficial to the person who has the cancer – if you would say: “Can you help me understand what it’s like to have been told that you have cancer?” That gives them the opportunity to tell you what is going on inside. Then you truly do know what it is like for them and don’t have to imagine.
I’m sure everything is going to be just fine.
I’d like to be able to see your crystal ball to be able to see the future. The problem with saying this is that everything may not be fine.
Some people facing cancer will go down to their grave with a lot of losses, a lot of disappointment, a lot of regret, a lot of guilt, a lot of rejection, and a lot of feelings of abandonment.
They may have tried three rounds of a specific chemo, submitted to two or more different medication cocktails that didn’t work and found in the end that everything went from bad to worse. NOTHING turned out fine.
Something very traumatic happens to a person’s emotional and spiritual equilibrium when told they have cancer; especially if their type of cancer is treatable but not curable. What is there to hope for now? What reservoirs of strength can be drawn from to endure? Where can peace be found when a lot of suffering is just on the horizon?
Sometimes the pauses between the crisis of the original diagnosis and the subsequent treatment choices vary so much that the direction of travel is not all that clear. There is no guarantee of what is going to assure the “finest” of outcomes.
What people really need to hear is that the possibility for hope remains! Even with all the uncertainties and fears of a cancer diagnosis what most people really really care about is to make choices that lean in the direction of the kind life they say is worthwhile – one which for the majority of people includes: life with hope in the midst of fear, life with strength in the midst of increasing weakness, and life lived with a peace even though death will come.
I know what you are going through is tough because I’ve had cancer, too.
Don’t say that. Period. Although well-intentioned, this is another example of what not to say to someone who has cancer.
Always keep the focus on the person with the disease, not on yourself. You are there to walk alongside, and if possible, to help the other person be clearheaded about the decisions they may have to make.
Understandably, people can’t fathom what their life might become now that they have cancer. Goals change as conditions worsen. Even acquiring a semblance of peace can be difficult because peace has so many components. And yet, for a Christian, one of the essential truths that fosters a deepening and satisfying peace is that God – not the disease – determines the number of our days. Every believer is no less in the Lord’s hands now than he was before the bad news.
It would more preferable to wait until the person with cancer asks you: “Did anybody in your family ever have cancer?” You then could say, “Yes, me.” And then with that fresh discovery of a shared experience, a whole new level of meaningful communication will open up between the two of you. Until that happens, don’t assume your experience is going to be theirs.
God never gives us more than we can handle.
If this were true, then God would be unnecessary. We could face anything ourselves and we wouldn’t need him. The fact is, there are circumstances that we are unable to handle by ourselves and we desperately need God to intervene.
And maybe that is a small upside of cancer, that we would be able to see our need for God in a profound way that we previously did not see. God is not the enemy. The disease is the enemy. Maybe God is willing to heal. Maybe he chooses not to heal.
And right here is where prayer becomes such an important element! Someone with cancer can talk to the very Person whose will is in control of all things. Shock and fears, concerns and worries notwithstanding, someone who believes in God can dare to plead for change because prayer can do anything God can do! Regardless of what happens in the journey with the disease it is always good to pray! For more about this topic, read Asking God for Help.
And besides all this, there are always the hopeful words from God in the Bible. “Goodness and Mercy are pursuing you all the days of your life (Psalm 23:6).” They are following you, attending you; and you are headed for an environment where nothing like your present circumstances will ever be true again. It matters to God concerning you: concerning your now and concerning your then. If you would like to know more about how to invite God into your journey, see this article.
Remember, our role is to walk alongside people and to care for them in their suffering. We must keep the focus on them, not us. It is important that we not try to fix the person or their problem. No one but God has the capability of doing that.
In the meantime; you should know that it says something admirable about your character that you are concerned about saying the most helpful things to the person you know who has cancer. Go ahead and act on your desire to help. Be thoughtful in what you say. Your conversations will be richly rewarding and mutually satisfying.
Help to Do It Well
For more help with talking with someone who has cancer, read my other article, “What to Say to Someone With Cancer.”
You can also find help with what to say by Asking God for Help.
Charlie Deridder served as a chaplain for the Veterans Administration for more than 10 years, where he helped start an initiative called, No Veteran Dies Alone. Currently a registered chaplain with the Evangelical Free Denomination, he has personally known and walked with hundreds of people who have faced cancer, including his wife. He is convinced that all patients facing cancer have the opportunity to experience great hope, strength and peace. You can send him questions or comments here.
Note: We are not doctors and we cannot answer your medical questions. However, we welcome your questions about finding hope and knowing God.