Updated 03 April 2017

10 things never to say to a cancer patient

A diagnosis of cancer can tie the tongues of friends and family members. We found out which seemingly helpful words are actually harmful.


Cancer is often referred to as the "Big C" and many people fear the diagnosis. Even with modern advances in treatment it's still a frightening experience for patients, who often feel alone.

But research from the Cancer Support Community in Washington has shown that people living with cancer, who get emotional support from friends and family, cope better.

Saying the wrong thing

According to the National Cancer Registry, more than 10 000 South Africans are diagnosed with cancer every year and it is important to know how to support a loved one.

Sister Rumay Oosthuizen, manager of Nursing Services at the Helderberg Hospice, says that in an attempt to say the right compassionate words, one can often end up saying the wrong thing.

Oosthuizen and her nursing team, who specialise in the care of patients facing terminal illness, consider the following to be inappropriate words of sympathy:

1. 'I know how you feel.'

"Everyone's got a cancer story," says Dennis Citrin, author of Knowledge is Power: What Every Woman Should Know About Breast Cancer. He writes that every individual cancer patient will have their own experience of the illness, so avoid relating the negatives of another person's condition.

2. 'Your family will be fine. It is not that bad.'

According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), cancer doesn’t only affect the patient. It affects their family members and friends as well. Caregivers or family members of someone with cancer might also experience some form of emotional stress as part of the natural human response.

3. 'It can’t be that sore.'

Downplaying a person’s pain may not be the best mood-lifting strategy. According to the Helderberg Hospice, cancer can be painful and treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery can potentially be an additional source of pain.

Read: Treating cancer

4. 'Just be grateful for what you have.'

According to Dr Stan Goldberg, author of Loving, Supporting and Caring for the Cancer Patient, cancer patients too often encounter people who assume the role of cheerleader, saying things like “Don’t worry about it.” “You’ll be fine!” However, he observed, “Words of optimism may work in the short run, but in the long run they can induce guilt if the cancer is more virulent and defeats a person’s best effort.”

5. 'God will answer your prayers to get better.'

Dr Nikhil Joshi, cancer survivor and author of The End of Suffering, writes that when comforting a cancer patient, you should keep your personal beliefs to yourself. “I write this as a person who believes in God,” Joshi says, “but it is not the time to proclaim your faith.”

6. 'You should Google treatments for cancer.'

According to CANSA, just as no two cancer patients are alike, no two cancers are alike. Each circumstance is unique and comes with its own set of problems to be solved. Many cancers can be controlled and many new treatments are being developed. However, you should trust your loved one to make their own choices according to the information they receive from their doctors.

Read: Google says you might die soon... from a sore throat

7. 'Only eat veggies and fruit.'

In her article in the New York Times, Jane Brody writes that you should never suggest that a person’s lifestyle is to blame for cancer. Even if it may have been a contributing cause, blame is never helpful. Many factors influence cancer risk, but getting cancer is often just bad luck.

8. 'Your doctor (or any relevant medical therapist) is not competent.'

Family members may often doubt healthcare workers’ capabilities because cancer can be very unpredictable. Instead of questioning the abilities of professionals, family members should trust their loved one's medical team to find the best plan to tackle the next stage of treatment.

9. 'Alternative medication will not work.'

Sister Patsy Ryan from Somerset West says that it’s important for patients to make their own choices when they choose a treatment. By openly discouraging a treatment, you can easily foster doubt in a patient’s mind.

Read: Natural cancer remedies: sorting fact from fiction

10. 'Your body has changed/The tumour in your neck is growing.'

"We all want to be told we look good," says Melanie Young, author of Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor's Guide to Staying Fearless and Fabulous in the Face of Breast Cancer. Therefore avoid stating the obvious by focusing on a cancer victim’s physical transformations.

Read more:

Top warning signs of cancer

National anti-stigma cancer campaign launched

Access to cancer care: what do we need to do?


Ask the Expert

Cancer expert

CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst. For more information, visit

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