What to Say When an Acquaintance Has Cancer

2.5  minute read

I Don’t Want to Say the Wrong Thing So I Say Nothing

Even people who have lived beyond being diagnosed with cancer sometimes don’t know what to say to another ill person. When I mentioned considering “what to say to someone who has cancer” as the topic for this post, a friend encouraged me to choose it. She, like so many others, wants something to say to such people that is not the wrong thing to say.

Who Are You, Rose, to Write This?

Fair question! Judy and I are fortunate that our public library maintains a resource centre inside the regional cancer centre. It assists cancer patients, survivors, and their families with access to books, journal articles and other research tools about cancer. To date I’ve read five books from this collection and am in the middle of a sixth. I participate in the breast cancer subreddit and read daily the bulletin board on the web site of the Canadian Cancer Society. In addition, during the testing phase of the Best Breast Vest, I spent at least one hour with each tester hearing about her experience with breast cancer.

As I wrote in my first blog [https://bestbreastvestco.com/blogs/vest-buds/and-shes-off], Judy’s experience with breast cancer is only one of many paths the disease and its treatment can take. I synthesize my experience supporting Judy with all that I have read to be empathetic to our customers. It is with this knowledge and experience I advise you on what to say and as importantly, what not to say. 

I want to bring to your attention one book in particular, written in 2020: Living With the Long-Term Effects of Cancer by Dr. Cordelia Galgut. [Link to publisher's site.] What makes this book noteworthy? Dr. Galgut is a registered counselling psychologist diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. In other words, she’s in the trenches and she’s a good communicator. 

Whatever You Do, Don’t Say These Things

  • “Relax”, by itself or in a sentence. 
  • “Don’t worry.” 
  • “It’s going to be okay.”

You Can Say This

“I hope this is not the wrong thing to say: I’m sorry this happened to you.” Then say no more.

No matter your relationship to the person with an illness, the instruction to say no more leaves a respectful space for the ill person to respond with the level of intimacy or amount of information they are comfortable sharing. This response does not increase their hardship by putting the onus on them to say anything back. 

How To Use This Information

Memorize the phrase I’ve given you. When you do meet someone who shares a diagnosis with you, say the phrase and no more. If you do that you will have acknowledged the other person’s reality which is a kind and excellent thing to do. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201301/why-people-dont-acknowledge-you?eml).


If you’ve found this phrase handy please let me know via Instagram, LinkedIn or FaceBook. Find us on LinkedIn at Rose & Judy of Best Breast Vest Co. Our handle on other social media is BestBreastVestCo.



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