Think Pink: What not to say to someone with cancer

Think Pink: What not to say to someone with cancer

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - What Not to Say to Someone with Cancer, Georgia Anderson, MSW, LISW-S, OSW-C with Cancer Support Community

  1. Do not regale the person with stories about everyone you’ve ever know who had cancer – especially if he or she died!

Getting a cancer diagnosis is already scary and most people are immediately reminded of their own mortality.  Each cancer experience is as individual as the person who is diagnosed.   Instead of talking about great-aunt Sally's cancer, it may be more helpful to simply ask the person with cancer how they are doing.  It is simple and allows that person to decide how much detail to disclose.

2. "Keep a positive attitude and everything will be fine."

Everything may not be fine.   There are many emotions that go with getting a cancer diagnosis, including anger and fear.  It is healthy for people to be able to express their feelings as a way to process and cope with those emotions.  By telling someone to stay positive, it shuts down the conversation.  Also, the implied message is that if the cancer gets worse, the patient is to blame for having a negative attitude.

3. Do not pointing out physical changes.

People with cancer are acutely aware of how much weight they have gained/lost, how much hair they have lost or how pale they might look.  Often, people grieve these changes in their physical appearance and do not need someone else pointing it out.  Instead, pay a genuine compliment like "Your manicure looks great!" or tell the person how happy you are to see them and leave it at that.

4. Do not offer unsolicited advice.

There are always stories in the news or social media that sing the praises of a new "anti-cancer" diet, exercise plan, holistic care center, or amazing doctor that all cancer patients MUST see.  Loss of control is one of the things that many people with cancer experience. Offering unsolicited advice can make the person feel like you are saying that you know what is best for them.

5. Do not about the person's prior health habits, like "Are you a smoker?

It is true that certain health behaviors increase the chances of being diagnosed with cancer, but now is not the time to place blame.  People who are diagnosed will often agonize about why they got the disease and being asked about their health habits only rubs salt in the wound.  It is important to remember that there are many things that can contribute to a cancer diagnosis: genetics, environment, health behaviors, and sometimes dumb luck.  In my career, I have worked with patients who never smoked, drank or ate meat and still got cancer.  If science could figure out why people get cancer, it could be eradicated.

And Cancer Community Support asked their survivors what people should not say and here's what they don't like to hear:

  • I just heard this one today, "No cancer is good, but if you have to get cancer, breast cancer is good because it's one of the most researched cancers and the treatment is very successful."
  • The other thing for me was don't automatically assume "pink"  for everything - clothes, blankets, journals, cups, pens, bracelets, etc.  Maybe the person doesn't want to be labeled/reminded constantly as the diagnosis and treatment is enough. That might not be something the Think Pink group wants to hear, though.
  • Oh, you'll be fine
  • Are you gonna get them taken off? And get new ones?
  • So You will get a new set!
  • You are strong and will get through this
  • Out with the old, in with the new
  • You don't look sick
  • I feel sorry for you
  • After mentioning I'm having a double mastectomy, they say are you going to get some really big ones, then they want to know what size you are.

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