Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer

In July 2003, I was diagnosed with aggressive Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. At stage 3B (there are only 4 stages, and B means it had begun spreading around my body) the tumour in my chest was as big as a saucer. My treatment consisted of three months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiotherapy. During this time, we had the wonderful opportunity to be supported by a church community who cooked my family hot meals most evenings and provided nothing less than amazing support.

However, as well as the good, there was the bad and the downright ugly. There were times when I wondered what belief systems people limp around with, and about what was being preached in churches and printed in books about sickness and supportive care. For the information of those wishing to be a support to those with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses, I offer the following. This list will be based on actual statements which were made to me either whilst I had cancer or in the months following my successful treatment.

  • What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This comes from the idea that adversity breeds resilience. Often and ideally it can do just that. However, what doesn’t kill you can still frighten you witless. Being told you have cancer and may not see the year out, let alone never your children grow to adulthood, is a soul-withering concept, often accompanied with a varying range of intense emotions which may last days, weeks and even months. Being told that if you don’t die, at least you may end up having a more highly evolved character is not particularly comforting. Being told there is a chemotherapy that will get rid of your cancer is.
  • My friend/cousin/uncle/neighbour had that, and they died. A clear example of how the truth doesn’t always set you free.
  • Just pray, and God will heal you. Sometimes people recover from cancer, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, people pray and cancer goes away, sometimes nobody prays and cancer goes away. Instead of the above, tell them sincerely “I will pray for you”, then go away and actually do it.
  • You must have unconfessed sin in your life/family lineage/household. This statement serves no purpose whatsoever, as condemnation has always failed in facilitating repentance anyway. The precursor for cancer is possession of a human body in a messed up world. If you believe and plan to say the above statement, be prepared to back it up with Scripture. Because you can’t, and you and I both know it, I am already primed to come to your house and punch you in the mouth if you actually go ahead.
  • God is trying to teach you something through this. When I was little, my mother taught me to avoid touching the hot stove by holding my hand on the heat until I screamed in pain and had to be hospitalised for months. Not really. My mum loves me. She found other ways to teach me which wouldn’t leave me permanently disfigured and hate her forever.
  • You don’t need chemotherapy, you just need faith. David was assured by God he would be valiant over Goliath, but he still used a rock and a sling. And he finished the job with Goliaths own sword. If you have issue with “worldly” medicine, I say fight fire with fire: after all, disease is not a condition that occurs in heaven.
  • I would love to come around and see you. What you probably mean is “I would love to come around and look at you. I would like you to see my sad face, and my “coffin eyes”. I would like you to hear all the things God/my neighbour/the internet has told me about your disease and how to become better.” The last thing someone who has cancer wants to be is an exhibit. Don’t get a committee together from the church for a drop-in and expect to be welcomed. We had to put a sign on our door to stop people just wandering into our home uninvited to “see” me. Having cancer does not cancel out a person’s dignity or right to privacy.
  • I have a book for you. Please do not take your book, especially if it is about special cancer curing food, juice or vitamin supplements. Most cancer patients have a television, a phone, a car, the internet, and access to every store that you do. Offer to get them anything they would like that they can’t seem to be able to get for themselves. If they want to know about the Praise Jesus Diet or some Guatemalan beetle juice, then they will call you and ask you to get it for them.
  • I can make a lasagne. Anything but lasagne. They have probably had as much pasta bake as they can eat brought by well-meaning friends and relatives. Be creative, call first with the offer, and actually follow through. And please don’t expect them to remember that you sent it in Aunty Betty’s special wedding present casserole dish. Stress does funny things to the memory. They will be hard pressed thanking you, let alone getting your heirloom back to your house.
  • Tell me everything. I knew people understood what I was really going through when they didn’t ask me to tell them.. After being prodded, poked and punctured, and having my bodily dysfunctions discussed in minute detail the last thing I wanted to converse about was cancer. I wanted someone to look into my face and really see me, the person inside the body. Now some people like to talk about their disease, treatment and operations with great animation and detail: they may be enemy focussed, and if this helps them, well, great. I find that most people with cancer will enjoy an opportunity to talk about the outside world, the place where living occurs: normal life. Indulge them, not your own morbid fascinations.
  • Well, we all have to die from something. If you had walked among the dying, you would never speak of death so lightly. I lived with a man who in his last weeks of life was dealing with the fact he caused his own lung cancer and would soon be leaving his teenage son behind. I also lived with a couple who had saved up all their working lives so they could travel, only to have the husband diagnosed with brain cancer two months after retiring. I met countless young women who lost the breasts they nurtured their children at, and the partners they conceived them with, because of what cancer brought into their world. I know a woman who died of mouth cancer who I am sure would rather have died of anything else. In the end, her face was eaten away, and she was unable to eat or kiss her husband, who remained faithfully at her side until she died. Six months later, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Yes, everyone must die sometime, of something. The fortunate ones are blessed with the time and the opportunity to ask themselves the following three questions: Is this my time to die? If not, am I able to do what is required to survive? If this is my time, am I prepared? In times when I’ve been dragged along by well-meaning Christians who wanted me to join them in praying for someone in the terminal stages of cancer for a miraculous healing, I couldn’t help thinking our time and well-intentions may have been better directed towards supporting them through some of those difficult conversations. When dying is prolonged or inevitable, it behooves us to be as honest, sensitive and forth coming as we can be, not only for our own sake, but for that of the one going through it.

If you are in a position to be beside someone who is faced with these questions, pray for wisdom to help them find their answers, and for the strength to walk beside them through their valley of the shadow. And remember, whenever you are with them, it really is all about them.

Helpful Links

Cancer Council Australia – Support and information for general cancer categories.

The Leukemia Foundation Australia – Support and Information for those with blood cancers.

Canteen – Organisation with a focus on support for teens and young persons.

Breast Cancer Network Australia – Support and information for those diagnosed with breast cancer.

Prostate Cancer Foundation Australia – Support and information for those diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Lung Foundation Australia – Support and information for those diagnosed with lung disease.

Rare Cancers Australia – Support for those diagnosed with less common cancers.

Bowel Cancer Australia – Organisation focused on supporting those living with bowel cancer.

Ovarian Cancer Australia – Supporting those with an ovarian cancer diagnosis.

Red Kite – Kids cancer charity supporting families of children living with cancer.

Bladder Cancer Australia – Networking and supporting those living with a bladder cancer diagnosis.

Head and Neck Cancer Australia – Information and support for those living with head and neck cancers.

Australian Pancreatic Cancer Foundation – Information and support for those living with pancreatic cancer diagnoses.

Kidney Health Australia – Resources for those diagnosed with kidney cancer.

The Brain Cancer Centre – Support and information for those living with brain cancer.

Lymphoma Australia – Resources and information for those living with a lymphoma diagnosis.

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