What to say to someone with cancer/thoughts on how to be a friend to someone with a serious illness

April 5th, 2013 § 116 comments

IMG_5021For those who wanted to hear my interview on Doctor Radio and weren’t able to listen on Wednesday, here is a link to a downloadable audio file of the one hour show. Thanks to my brother, Mark, for doing this. That show leads directly into today’s discussion.


I always get some heat about posting essays about the stupid things people say to those with cancer.

I know people come here expecting to learn. That’s what I’m trying to do: educate. People inevitably vary in their responses to what people say. After all, responses to books, movies, and comedians are all over the place.

Occasionally people will get defensive and say, “Well, I have said one of those ‘stupid’ things and I meant well.” I am going to take an unpopular stance and say that meaning well isn’t always enough.

Maybe the listener is scared. Maybe they’ve had cancer or a family member with it. Maybe they are just uncomfortable talking about illness and death. It’s important to remember: it’s not about you. It’s about the person with the illness. If you are a friend you will need to get over your discomfort or get out of the way. What you don’t want is for the ill person to have to be consoling the listener or trying to minimize the seriousness of what they’re feeling.

Do not turn it back on you, or when you had cancer, or when your child or mother or 2nd grade teacher did. It’s not necessarily the same. Types of cancer are not the same. Even subtypes of cancer are not the same. Now, I’m not saying you should always avoid interjecting something to let the other person know that you’ve had experience with cancer. But the first thing out of your mouth shouldn’t be to connect it to someone else and what their outcome was, good or bad.

Different diseases cannot be compared. Different cases of the same disease cannot necessarily be compared, either. Chiming in with, “Oh, my second cousin’s boyfriend’s dog walker had breast cancer” doesn’t help a person, especially if it’s followed by “She suffered in pain for a long time and died” (yes, this gets said more often than you can imagine). The other end of the spectrum is, “Oh I know someone who had that. They’re fine now.” (Okay, but some people are not fine… should they be jealous? Feel inadequate?) Someone told me in response to learning I had metastatic breast cancer that his wife “had a bit of that last year.”

If you had a coworker who worked the entire time she had treatment, that’s great. We are happy for her, truly. But that bears no relation to how someone else can handle their surgeries, treatments, and side effects. So while you might think it’s supportive (in your mind you’re saying, “See, I’m being supportive and reassuring her that it might not be as bad as she thinks”) what that person may reasonably hear is, “Wow, if you have to take time off work you are weak, or at least not as strong as my coworker was.”

What would be something better to say to a coworker? How about “Please tell me how I can help you during this time. Is there something at work I can do to make it easier for you? I hope you know I would like to help if I can. If you can’t think of anything now, that’s okay. Just let me know if/when you do. I’ll ask again to make sure you’re getting the help you might need.”

Asking “Has this been a good week or bad week for you?” seems like a good bet to ask someone you might not be best friends with. It shows concern and they can be as detailed as they want in their response.


A few weeks ago someone tweeted to me, “As a cancer survivor myself, I know that half the battle is the mindset. Be determined to defeat cancer and you will!” Then followed that one up with “I meant that if we believe we can win against it, we will.”

Comments about someone’s attitude are definite don’ts. Does that mean those who die every day are responsible for their deaths because they are weak-minded? If it were as easy to defeat cancer as mindset, people would not die of it by the thousands every day.

Similarly, comments about appearance while rampant, can strike the wrong chord. I can’t tell you how many times people find out about my stage 4 diagnosis and say, “But you LOOK just fine!” The two are not always correlated, most especially at the time of diagnosis. This is why many people don’t know they have cancer and are completely taken by surprise. When people tell me “You look great!” I know they mean something nice by it. But the rest of that comment, the dark underbelly, is “You don’t look like you’re dying” or in some ways more insidious, “If you look that good you can’t possibly be that sick/it can’t be that serious.”

Don’t say you know exactly how someone feels if you don’t have evidence to back that up. Being a compassionate person and caring friend does not require personal experience that is identical to what the person is going through. Let me say that again, a different way: in my opinion you don’t need to have had cancer to be a caring friend. It might help you to be a good friend if you have had cancer, but it’s no guarantee. People “do” cancer differently. While the experience might have similarities, it doesn’t mean we will necessarily agree on how to deal with it. Part of what I try to do here is level the playing field. I try to bring you information and advice you can use so that you will know more about helping than you did before.

Don’t tell them that their science-based treatments are bunk and what they really need to be doing is just changing their diet, breathing pure oxygen, or relieving their constipation to be cured of cancer. Do not tell someone who is in the middle of treatment that chemotherapy is a waste of time. You may think your suggestions of supplements/vitamins/tea are harmless, however, there are serious interactions that can dull the effectiveness of chemotherapy and other treatments. Not all lotions are good to use during radiation treatment. Not all vitamins are good additions.


I like what @travisbhartwell tweeted to me: “Mindset changes the days you have, not the number of days you have.”

The worst thing that can happen is that friends disappear. This is happening to me in spades. It may be that they are afraid they’ll say the “wrong” thing and end up being written about. But I think it also has to do with the fact that death and illness make people uncomfortable. I represent their fears. People who should be in touch with me at least every week or two (because that is how often we saw each other before) have just dropped away.

That said, there are so many people in my life who are so wonderful. Who offer to help, who make it easy to accept it. Who send notes or emails of support months after the initial shock. Who keep asking what they can do. Who pointedly give ways they can help and ask if I could use it.


One thing I think is very important is to always say to someone who is ill or has experienced a death in the family: do not write me a thank you note for this. Do not feel the need to answer this email. Do not feel the need to call me back.

If you live near the person ask them, “Would it be helpful if I texted you before I run errands so that I can pick something up for you?” Texting and email help because talking on the phone is almost always too much of an ordeal and/or inconvenient. I have friends who email me at the beginning of the week to say, “I’ll be at the grocery store, the drugstore, and the post office this week. Can I do anything there for you?” Some will text on the spur of the moment, “Running to Costco. Need anything?” These are invaluable offers.

If you have no knowledge of what information you are being told, admit it. People with serious illnesses do not expect you to know everything about their new diagnosis. They are probably learning a lot of information in a short period of time and may not even know the details of their diagnosis and treatment. They don’t expect you to have the knowledge but you need a way to connect. I recommend when someone tells you about a diagnosis you don’t know much/anything about you say, “I don’t know anything about what that diagnosis means. Would you mind telling me about it, and what it means for you?”

How is it affecting your day-to-day life and what part of that can I help you with?

I’m so sorry to hear that.

What is the worst part of this for you and how can I help make that a bit easier for you?

If your friend is dying or has a relative who is, and they refer to the death or how difficult treatment/daily life is, don’t brush it off, dismiss it, or say, “Oh, you’re not going to die. You’ll be fine. It will all be okay. Things will work out.” Saying this to someone with stage 4 cancer comes across as dismissive of the seriousness of their diagnosis.

If the listener says, “Oh, that’s depressing, let’s not talk about dying,” it can isolate the person who is ill, making them feel they should not be thinking about what is a very real concern or outcome. As Julie Klam points out in her book Friendkeeping, acknowledging someone’s wishes should be paramount. She tells the story of her mother and her mother’s friend Patty who was dying of cancer. Patty wanted to give Julie’s mom a pendant. Rather than gratefully accepting it, Julie’s mom insisted Patty would wear it again, that she would get better. Instead, she died a few days later. Years later when recounting the story with regret, Julie’s mom said, “She knew she was dying. It probably would’ve been comforting to her for me to acknowledge that… I was just afraid that she had some small glimmer of hope. I just didn’t know.” I would bet that if that same scenario happened again, Julie’s mom would act differently.

Later in the chapter Julie recounts being a friend to someone who had to terminate a pregnancy. She asks Julie a question that continues to haunt me: “Will anything ever be good again?” It echoes in my mind now: Will anything ever be good again? Will anything ever be good again?

The truth of the matter is that for some it will. For some people, it won’t.

Check in with your friend intermittently. Give her reminders that she is not forgotten even if she is not out in public. I love getting cards or texts or emails that tell me what my friends are up to. As I write this my friend Kathleen texted me to say she was eating at one of our favorite places. “I miss your company” she said. How can you not love that?

I love written notes. I save my favorites. When I’m having a bad day there is something about pulling out a card, seeing handwriting, reading a message. It’s just more personal than seeing it on a screen. Of course texts and emails are great for frequent check-ins, but for a special message? Real paper can’t be beat.

Other winners to me are notes that remind me of a funny experience a friend and I had, a favorite memory. Many people know I love my garden and flowers. They will send me a pretty card and tell me what they saw at the farmer’s market or in their own garden or what they’re looking forward to about Spring. Sometimes they will tell me about being on vacation and how they thought of me when they saw the water or the tropical plants and they remembered a trip I’d blogged about.

Some send a favorite poem or story or memory. I like those. I don’t like religious quotations or cards that focus on people praying for me or hoping for a miracle. That assumes I am a religious person (I am not and I don’t believe in miracles). I think cards should focus on the person— the connection to that person, your friendship, not what types of religious comfort or explanation the writer endorses.

One Twitter friend, Neil Shurley, wrote me a song titled “We Love You, Lisa,” and then made a video with people holding up signs that say those same words. I still watch it. I always cry. It’s one of my favorite things anyone has ever done for me. This, from what most people would term a stranger. Another friend, Nichole, took photographs that people sent her, combined them with poems and sayings and turned them into a photo book for me. When I’m down it’s another thing I reach for to feel support.

Does the person who is ill have children? If so, you can do what one room mom did for me this year: For school events Lizzie always asked if I felt well enough to join on any party or field trip. She offered rides to school performances. When I could not attend, she (and other moms) took photos and videos and sent them to me… without being asked. My friend Zerlina put together a playdate calendar and a dozen moms signed up in rotation to have Tristan over three times a week for playdates for the past six months. This was especially helpful. Sometimes I’ve been well enough to say we would host the playdate here. But knowing there was fun built in with his friends was a relief to me.

Finally, I always love my mother’s suggestion for one of the best questions you can ask in any situation whether it be posed to a friend, a spouse, a child, a coworker. When someone comes to you with a complaint, a problem, or a rant asking the simple question, “Do you just want me to listen or do you want my advice?” is a wonderful way to be supportive. Sometimes a friend just needs to cry and vent, no advice wanted. By asking you will show sensitivity to the distinction. This is what I mean by not needing to have had the same experience to be a good friend. Listening matters. It’s free, and all you have to do is offer (and follow through).

And if you have a serious illness how do you respond when someone asks you how you are? If you don’t want to answer in detail, one suggestion is to say, “There are good days and bad days. Today is a … day.” This response is also a good one after the death of a loved one. If you are having a good day it allows you to acknowledge they’re not all like that. If you’re having a bad day it expresses that you know they won’t all be like that, either.


I think we all like to hear that we matter, that we make a difference, that we are loved. In the end, you can never go wrong by telling (or writing) someone what they mean to you, what you like about them, and what you enjoy most about being with them. This is the essence of friendship to me. Some days you need a serious chat. Some days you need a friend to be silly with. Some days you need a friend to go shopping and have a gossip session with and try to put cancer in the back seat for a few hours. There are many ways to be supportive.

My dear friend Cathy texts me every morning to wish me a good day and asks, “How can I help you today?” I most certainly don’t expect that every friend should do this. But boy, it means a lot that she does. I rarely need something these days. But I will someday. And when I do, I know she’ll be there for me.

I have so many people in my world who care. I know how fortunate I am. I hope that some of these suggestions will be helpful and I am sure you will find others as readers comment on the post. You don’t need to have many things to say… a few good options will do.


I hope you all have a good weekend, we are starting to feel Spring here and boy, does it feel good!


Tagged , , , ,

§ 116 Responses to What to say to someone with cancer/thoughts on how to be a friend to someone with a serious illness"

  • Sarah says:

    Hi Lisa, I hope you are having a ‘good’ day today! Was a bit jealous to read that you are coming into spring! Lucky! We are heading into Autumn and our days are getting colder now :-( I dislike the cold, even before I became ill – but Chemo cold is horrific for me! Enjoy your warmer weather!

    Thank you so much for this post! Man, the type of things that come out of people’s mouths just blows my mind! I also have lost a lot of friends through this ordeal – and they were considered my very good friends at that! Initially they kept in touch, but when I started my year of Chemo and radiation hell, slowly I stopped hearing from them, not even a text :-( They did find the time to send me emails stating that I was ‘not a good friend anymore, not putting effort into the friendships how I used to!’ – this was the general consensus from them! This, as a 26yr old – who although I was married with children, still went out with friends and yes, at times even put them and their issues before my children and husband!
    Cancer changed these priorities! I was given 6mths, I wanted to spend that time with my children and husband and close family! My so called friends I assume couldn’t cope with that change maybe?? Besides that, Chemo was horrific for me, and that whole year was a haze – on the very rare occasion I went out to meet my friends, I slapped on my wig, a ton of make up and a happy face for a few hours – so that is all they ever saw of my whole Chemo experience! This was far from reality of Chemo and my day to day life which was a shell!

    So, now I’ve survived, still scarred and am left disabled mobility wise from my cancer – terminal – i decided to reach out to some of these friends! So, I text them saying how sorry I was that I had not been in contact through these past few years! I said I was sorry for not putting in as much effort as I should have!

    Now, looking back (and speaking to a good friend who actually stood by me!) I see how ridiculous it was for ME to write that to THEM!! Should they not be the ones to apologize to me for walking away? For leaving me when I needed them the most? For never coming around, for not trying to understand why I was unable to go out with them all the time anymore!!

    I still don’t know why I text/emailed them and made it my fault and I am sorry!? I guess I was just really hurt that they walked away when I never would have done that to them!

    Cancer certainly let’s you know who your real friends are! Now, I wouldn’t want those people in my life now – they are cleary only friends on their terms, that is not a friend!

    Thank you Lisa, for posting the truth! I don’t understand why you would get ‘heat’ over being honest & giving advice to help people!! Keep it up – you are helping me so much, among many others!

    Hope you continue to have more good days than bad!!

    Sarah xx

    • Vicky says:

      What do I say and how can I be supportive to a friend who lives in another country, far, far away who has fought and won against breast cancer, but is currently waiting to be told if she has colon cancer?
      And if she does, how can I be helpful and what do I say to be helpful?
      Thank you,

      • Lisa Bonchek Adams says:

        Being a good listener is one of the best things you can do and that can be done no matter where you are. Staying in touch and expressing support are the hallmarks of being a good friend no matter what the circumstances. If you read the post and comments you should definitely find suggestions on what to say. Best wishes to your friend.

  • Gesine says:

    I loved your observation that everyone “does” cancer differently. I love all your observations, actually. We can all relate to the people of whom you speak, who are misguided in their approach to being “supportive” because it’s human. I’m sure I’ve done/ said some idiotic things. I see your calling out the behavior as incredibly helpful. You’re empowering those battling cancer to ask for better and those who love them to be better.

  • Lori says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Hope you are having a good day today. I stumbled upon your blog through a mutual friend and read it weekly. I always love what you post and today’s post is fantastic! You are an inspiration!


  • Amanda says:

    Thank you – I continue to read your blog & just listened to the radio show. It was nice to actually listen as well. As usual, it helps. We are both following along. Thank you….

  • Beth Gainer says:

    Hi Lisa,

    It broke my heart when you discussed friends who have distanced themselves from you. This post made me cry; it is so poignant, beautiful, and — above everything — helpful to people who might have a friend who is seriously ill. So many people are supportive, but so many others just think about themselves in relation to the person with the disease. I know we have never met, but I feel connected to you and read your posts regularly. There is amazing power in your words, and just know that your voice is being heard in the world.

  • Katherine C. James says:

    This is a powerful post. Gesine said it all in her comment. Sending you admiration and love. Delighted to hear spring is coming to Connecticut.

  • Jen says:

    This post brought back so many memories of discussions I had with my mom when she was sick. We said time and time again that there is nothing like terminal cancer to make you realize who your real friends are. People have a crazy way of surprising you — both good and bad. I’m glad you have true friends who are sticking by you at this time. As for the others, I don’t think there’s anything you can do but shake your head and decide to treasure the good times you did have together. Different seasons of life call for different relationships…

    (Side note — I will never forget when a family friend of my husband went on and on about how we would throw a big party when my mom was “cured.” Um, you don’t get cured from Stage IV colon cancer. Shut up!!)

    • Shannon says:

      Really? I have stage IV colon cancer and fully expect to be cured. Perhaps “you don’t get cured from stage IV colon cancer” should be one of those things you don’t say to people who have stage IV colon cancer?

      I was diagnosed just over a year ago, just went through my 26th round of chemo (16 rounds of FOLFOX, 10 rounds of FOLFIRI), and hope to have cytoreductive surgery and HIPEC in the next couple of months. I will have a second surgery consult in May to determine whether I am a good candidate for the surgery.



    • Shannon says:

      Sorry, that came out harsher than I intended. Just tired from chemo this weekend and the neulasta shot Monday.



      • Britt says:

        This exchange is so important, Shannon. I know I’ve said the Wrong Thing… we cancered are not exempt from foot in mouth. In a similarly post-Neulasta state, I went on a rant with my closest girlfriends about being compared to everyone’s great aunt. I reserved the right to my own amount of incomparable unfairness and I flippantly said something to the effect of “… it’s different to get this at 70 than 40.” Well, it’s not if you’re 70. And in my self-involved tirade, I had completely forgotten who I was spewing at: my best friend who took care of her mother during the final year of pancreatic cancer. What a dolt I was. It’s probably worth exploring: absolutely shitty things I’ve said because of Cancer.

        • Shannon says:


          Thank you for understanding. I’m sure we have all said things that we shouldn’t have. I mentioned in another post that a colleague’s wife was diagnosed about 3 weeks before I was, and, since he never used the word “cancer,” I tiptoed around it, even when I heard him talk about oncologists. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed that I asked him to give me the straight scoop on her diagnosis. After I was diagnosed, I realized that I and my husband would much prefer to be straightforward with information, rather than tiptoeing around the subject, and that perhaps my colleague would have been, as well, if I had probed a little more.



  • Jane says:

    This is wonderful, valuable stuff. Especially the part about making proactive offers. Not “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” which leaves the ball in your court (as if you need more balls in your court!!) but an offer, in real time.

    And standing ovation for the reminder that talking about alternative therapies, saying a good attitude cures cancer, etc. are NOT helpful or respectful.

    Hooray for spring! I’m amazed and surprised, every year, how lovely it feels when it finally comes.

  • Kim C says:

    All I can say is Wow! Best post on what to say and not to say to anyone suffering really. It’s my thought that we are all doing our best to heal from some kind of personal pain in our lives and it’s important for us not to personalize anyone’s pain. I’ve learned some things and confirmed others with this post. I’m so glad you’re working so diligently to get this information out there……cancer.org next?? Thank you so much!! xx

  • Lisa, one of the things I always love most about these posts is your plain-spokenness. Your clear, practical, hands-on approach is so helpful to all of us, those of us dealing directly with cancer and those of us who aren’t (at the moment).

    We’re all living in the same world; I don’t know why people feel they have to suddenly start speaking a foreign language to someone with a serious illness. Thank you for these excellent, pragmatic suggestions, which help, as you say, “level the playing field.”

  • Kasee Kozel says:

    Thank you, Lisa.

  • So much truth, and kindness, in your teaching here. My wish for you is that you have more good days than bad. Spring has come to D.C. too. The cherry blossoms are finally unfurling after days of chill.

  • kelsey says:

    Awesome! Thank you!!!

  • Rachel says:

    Thank you, Lisa. I have a friend with stage 1(I think, but the bar seems to move) breast cancer. Her situation is different, but it is still sooooo helpful to get your perspective so I can calibrate my responses!

  • Jan says:

    Thank you. I really needed your advice.

  • uberbabyboomer says:

    Thank you for your courage to be honest. It s a gift to all who are following your journey. Our lives are enriched by your generosity and kindness. May the gifts you are giving come back to you x 1000 :)

  • Renn says:

    Lisa, this post should be required reading for every human being, for we all have been, or will be, touched by cancer’s shadow.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for stringing together these words so superbly. You have taken such a difficult topic and spun it into gold. You have given people the perfect response to the “I don’t know what to do or say” conundrum.

    You amaze me with your devotion and tenacity in showing the world what it’s like to live with mets, explaining how people can help the people in their lives. You are golden!

  • Jen says:

    Cancer touches so many of our lives these days, and I found your observations and recommendations so on point and helpful. I’ve had good friends go through cancer and presumably I have said some very inappropriate things along the way. However, I always felt that addressing them the best way I knew how, was better than not addressing them at all. When my mother was murdered 10 years ago, the most uncomfortable thing for me was when people did not say anything…I knew right then that they were uncomfortable and that was awkward. I would’ve rather had them say something totally inappropriate, knowing that it was just a botched attempt at letting me know they cared. Sometimes the best intentions get tangled in our web of trying to say ‘just the right thing’. I would never want any of my friends or family to worry about saying the wrong thing to me. If they give me the time of day and show that they care by showing up…that’s enough for me..inappropriate comments or not. That said, struggling with a terminal illness is , as you said so well, a whole different story and experience. I wish you well and appreciate you sharing what can help so many of us who don’t know what to say, but want to say something.

  • Teresa says:

    You matter. You make a difference. You are loved. I’ve never met you. You’ve let me into your life. I’ll always be grateful for what you teach me.

  • Alison says:

    Dear Lisa thank you for this post. Your thoughts have been very helpful . I have in the not too distant past had treatment for breast cancer . When I was recovering from surgery two of my old school & current book group friends announced that they were the “Monday fairies” and that until I needed otherwise that would come each Monday morning and clean my house, change linen and then take me out for lunch if I felt up to it. It was a fantastic support as much emotionally as practically, but the best bit was that I did not have to tell them what I wanted. I had lots of people say “let me know if there is anything I can do” and their duties fulfilled slipped quietly away.

    Now one of these dear friend’s husband has been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer and I am keen to be the very best support I can be. Reading your post this morning has helped me plan the things I am going to do going forward to support her and while I think my instincts in how to go forward were on the right track your post has empowered me to be proactive and practical in my support. Thank you again with very best wishes Alison

  • Lori says:

    Thank you so much. I hope you’re having a “good” day.

  • Your advice will certainly help many as they struggle with what to say. Like you, I am fortunate to have many friends who really care. They want to say and do the right thing. All the best to you. Jan

  • Pam says:

    Thank you for your directness, thank you for your courage, thank you for your perseverance. I wish you many good days to come, and want to let you know your words are far reaching and have made a direct and positive impact on my understanding. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an email of support that I need to send to a friend – thank you for the “push” to do so.

  • M.A. Gallerani says:

    Thank you for this. I will refer to it often as a guide when offering my sometimes awkward, but always well intentioned support for others.

  • DM says:

    I think you make some great points but I also think that people are just human. Some comments are egregiously inappropriate (the ones about having a good attitude) but others are people just trying to do something, anything. Though they might not be seriously ill, everyone has crap in their lives. Platitudes are always tiresome, cancer or not.

  • Dave says:

    My favorite piece of advice to give to anybody is “have some fun with it”. That includes my cancering friends. It’s always an invitation to go totally into the absurd, which usually leaves a smile at some point.

    I think it’s a good idea to consider that when you said that different cancer patients take things differently, that applies to the advice in this article, too. My good friend who’s cancering right now for the second time linked me saying she doesn’t agree with everything here.

    In the end, the root idea you’ve presented is “Take your lead from the patient and don’t be afraid to ask questions” is what everybody should do. Your friends and/or family that are going through this need your courage, and you show that by not being afraid to ask questions.

    I want to add that my dad had a story about being in the cancer ward enjoying some gallows humor with the other patients, and a volunteer bitching at everyone for not taking their illnesses seriously. Before she spoke up, everyone was happy and, as I like to suggest, having fun with it. Afterwards, everybody was miserable, forced back into reality. Some escapism is quite helpful, and in my experience, most patients enjoy some gallows humor from time to time. Be sensitive about that and jump on it when the time is right. You never know how helpful that can be. (Of course, some people find gallows humor offensive, so if your cancering friend/family is such a person, obviously don’t do it :) )

    • Lisa Bonchek Adams says:

      I’ve got gallows humor but hearing someone tell me to “have fun with it” and describe it as “cancering” would not strike me as funny or appropriate. I am not sure how to have fun with a disease that is going to take my life and me from my children and husband. I think you’d have to know your friend well to say that, and as a general rule I would not advise it to anyone.

      No one has to agree with me about it all. But I would think most people are more comfortable with what I’ve suggested than saying “have fun with it.”

      The humor between people at chemo is unique. But that doesn’t easily extend to general interactions which is what I was trying to address here, in part.

      • Kim C says:

        I agree with you. Some people with a cancer diagnosis might squeak out a laugh at your gallows humour, for your sake, but after you leave to go live your life, it might just add to their pain. Please leave those with a cancer diagnosis to joke amongst themselves. You’re not a part of that club. If you want to add levity – joke about yourself.

    • Bethany says:

      This exchange reminded me of a very interesting blog post by Dr. Kate Granger, a young UK doctor (age 31) who unfortunately is also contending with terminal cancer. She wrote quite honestly about her experience engaging her friends and family (who do not have cancer) in such zinging gallows humor that it definitely startled me to the point of wincing when I read her post last night. I lean more towards Lisa’s perspective myself, and I have a hard time imagining laughing in the face of either a friend’s or my own looming mortality, but it definitely broadened my horizons to learn that this is how some people cope.


      More broadly, Lisa, thank you for this post. I’m a first time commenter and have been reading your blog since you were linked in the NYT. In reading your blog, I’ve learned that I was guilty of a couple of the “what not to says” (not the most egregious ones, but the attempts to be unrealistically optimistic that you describe) when trying to support a friend who had a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. Learning this hasn’t caused me to feel defensive, though – just grateful that you have taken the time to share your experiences with us so that those of us who want to be supportive to our friends and family members can learn better how to do so.

      • Bethany says:

        To be clear: in linking to Dr. Granger’s post, I wasn’t intending to agree with Dave’s comments, which I felt were inappropriate and insensitive when offered generally. It may well be that one of Dave’s friends enjoys “having some fun with” their latest experience in “cancering,” and that banter is then well and good between Dave and his friend. But it is jarring when presented with a thread in which no participant with cancer has taken that tone and where the person without a cancer diagnosis is commenting. (It might have felt different if Dave’s friend posted about their own experience, rather than Dave enlightening us about how he “advises” his “cancering” friends. I’m not wild about ostensibly supportive friends being the ones to introduce the gallows humor because I’ve seen them inflict their humor on friends with cancer who … really don’t find the jokes all that funny but feel obligated to laugh and play along. This is one area where I think the person with the illness should definitely be the one to lead.)

        • Dave says:

          Ah, pardon me, the thrust of the article here still applies to everything I wrote, which seems to me to be “Follow the patient’s lead”. And no communication happens without the context of the relationship anyway.

        • Judith Braun says:

          I am in the midst of chemo, after a double mastectomy in Dec. When first diagnosed I applied lots of humor… having a “tata to my tatas” party…and making t-shirts that read “Beware…Bitch with Cancer in the House”. Now that I’ve experienced that surgery is nothing compared with chemo treatments, I’m more in the “good days” and “bad days” zone. But my earlier humor has lingered with some friends who can take too much liberty still. I guess I opened that door but it is like Jewish or racial jokes…hopefully others perceive the appropriate boundaries.

    • Britt says:

      I’ve got to agree strongly with Lisa here. One of the most ridiculous comments I’ve mocked repeatedly was in an email from an acquaintance whose flippant “well… make the best of it!” still provides giggles. Anything in the vein of look-on-the-bright-side kind of blows. That also goes for, “Ooh, are you going to get some ‘fun’ wigs? Get a RED one!” Fuck you and your head full of hair.

      • Dave says:

        DO keep in mind that nowadays I’m not your average “outside-looking-in” friend, either. I spent t he 4th and 5th grades going straight home after school, checking to see if my dad had died that day, and then asking if he needed anything from me before I went out. Then I did what he asked, gave him a hug, and said I’d be back in a few hours to check on him, which I always did. Mom wouldn’t letme see him in the mornings.

        At a period of time where the joke “if your hand is bigger than your face, you might have cancer” was popular, I went to school knowing my dad’s hand was the same proprtion to his face as anybody else’s. You can take it from there. He went into remission when I was in the fifth grade and stayed there until his death a few years back, and the doctors have everything short of a biopsy to say the cancer had come back (they couldn’t do the biopsy because he was in such terrible shape).

        Then, of course, the grandmother who refused to come around until he was “cured” because she was afraid she would catch it.

        Many years later, during my divorce, I joined a support group. There, I was able to differentiate quite well between people who took my “have fun with it” advice and ran with it and people who were offended by it.

        Oddly enough, the guy I used to fence with that was suffering PTSD after watching a woman with a baby blow herself up right in front of him and killing two soldiers that were in his unit right next to him whole-heartedly agreed with “having fun with it”. And on days when he wasn’t having fun with it, we’d talk instead of fence and he’d tell me all about it. Then I’d invite him to vent and hand him a sword. Went home with many a bruise those days.

        Not only is every patient different, so is every supporter.

        • Lisa Bonchek Adams says:

          I am sorry for all you have been through. I fear for the day my children have to do what you did for your father. Thank you for explaining your perspective in more detail; I think it is helpful to see where it comes from.

    • Shannon says:


      I have stage IV colon cancer and tend to agree with you. I wear “The chemo made me do it” and “I love the smell of chemo in the morning” t-shirts to chemo and try to make the best of a bad situation. My hubby and I joke about who is going to die first, since I have cancer, but he’s older than I am, etc.

      I also agree that you have to take your lead from the patient, as I do not agree with some of the advice / observations in this post. For example, I completely disagree with the following:

      Similarly, comments about appearance while rampant, can strike the wrong chord. I can’t tell you how many times people find out about my stage 4 diagnosis and say, “But you LOOK just fine!” The two are not always correlated, most especially at the time of diagnosis. This is why many people don’t know they have cancer and are completely taken by surprise. When people tell me “You look great!” I know they mean something nice by it. But the rest of that comment, the dark underbelly, is “You don’t look like you’re dying” or in some ways more insidious, “If you look that good you can’t possibly be that sick/it can’t be that serious.”

      I loved that people told me that I didn’t look like I had cancer! I *didn’t*. Now that I’ve been on Irinotecan for a while, I’ve lost about 3/4 of my hair, and can’t say that anymore.

      In addition, I don’t really blame friends that don’t deal well with the diagnosis. We all handle such news differently. In fact, three weeks before I was diagnosed, a colleague had to rush home because his wife was in the ER due to abdominal pain. Over the next few weeks, we asked how she was doing, but didn’t probe too much, though we were shocked when he mentioned oncologists, etc. We didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed that I asked him to tell me what was really going on with his wife, and that I realized that it would have been more compassionate to ask what was really going on sooner.



  • d2zen says:

    You honor all of us by sharing your insights and advice. You inform us about cancer (I’ve learned so much), being a friend, not being a clod—and about re-thinking our own levels of day-to-day awareness of others. You are admired and appreciated. Every day.

  • 'pini says:

    Thank you, Lisa, this is a big help to me. I was wondering why I’d had fewer and fewer friends, and those that stay are those closest to me.

    This clears it up.

    Thanks again.


  • Michelle says:

    “Have fun with it” – um let me get over that comment for a moment. Sorry Dave, that is nuts!

    Carrying on…

    Just wanted to let you know that I listened to your radio show and read your post. What you have written and spoken about is so important. Thank you for doing it. I have to say that it seemed like Dr. Formenti, was trying to explain away people’s behavior when it comes to this topic and I am glad that you stood your ground. We all get that people are uncomfortable, don’t know what to say and oftentimes, say the dumbest things.

    However, explaining it away only ensures that the behavior will continue. Not handling sickness or death well, seems to be acceptable in our society. Friends falling away while you are going through an illness and/or after a death, is par for the course but shouldn’t be.

    What you are doing will serve to help change things for the better!

  • As always, you wrote such pertinent and solid advice. I’ll never forget when my father had metastatic lymphoma and was off work due to the very aggressive treatment. My neighbor said to me, “Oh, I work with a woman who has breast cancer and she works and is fine.” First, she discounted my father’s experience, which undoubtedly was different and more severe than her co-worker’s. Second, who’s to say her co-worker didn’t suffer tremendously? I worked 3 days a week throughout chemo because I had to, but especially the week after chemo was often brutal! Fortunately, I usually worked alone so no one saw me at my worst, which is why they sung my praises. They didn’t know better.

  • Patricia says:

    Thank you for all of this! I have survived stage 1 breast cancer and I do know how fortunate I am. When Iwas oing through treatment, many people made comments that dismissed my experience because the cancer wasn’t “bad”. One doctor told me it was “garden variety”. Believe me, I truly appreciate the difference in stages, but I was having a very difficult time emotionally and physically and people’s dismissal of my “easy cancer” were so invalidating and isolating. How much more supportive it woud have been to do as you suggest and ask “how are you doing”?

  • jeanne kass says:

    Michelle is right on point regarding Dr. Formenti’s comments during the radio show. I was holding my breath during that until you, respectfully and “Lisaly”, disagreed with her. Then, the Costco detour… You made very good use of the final minute. I can’t help but think this post completes the show and both are so helpful to all of us who read and/or listened.
    I am so appreciative of ALL you share through your blog and Twitter. You have educated me in so many ways.

  • Michele says:

    Thank you, Lisa. I’m printing this out and keeping it as a reference.

  • A helpful and wise post, Lisa. Thank you. When friends drop away I wonder if it’s driven by fear that (a) they won’t know how to interact, (b) they’ll be made sad and (c) they may not be able to handle losing the person if that’s how it works out. None of these is justification, though. If one knows the person well enough to support them with a day-to-day problem, how much more important in your situation. Once read, I doubt your post will be forgotten, and that’s something few can say. So glad your real friends are solid, and I send my best wishes to you.

  • Sandy says:

    Thank you Lisa for kindly giving me permission to add your most recent post to my own blog. You expressed sentiments and suggestions that I wished I’d had your eloquence and courage to put out to my readers. I’m certain that your words will be as well received by my readers as they have obviously have been by yours, as evidenced by what we read in this comments section.

    Keeping you and your family in my thoughts.

  • ET says:

    thank you

  • Karen says:

    Lisa, thank-you so much for this article. It has given me a few things to add to my toolbox, and I appreciate it very much. My mother is living with metastasized breast cancer, as well as a separate lung cancer. We are doing what we can to make the rest of her life as full as possible. I am also very unwell. I have extremely debilitating allergies, to the point where I am on a regimen of 8 different medications to deal with the symptoms and the excruciating pain. I am unable to go anywhere where there is any scent, or any food, and in the last two weeks, spring has arrived, which means I can’t be outside for linger than 5 minutes. It is not life threatening (as long as my epipen is with me), but it is life altering certainly. My mother and I talk almost daily, and we always know that with each other we can be honest to the question “How are you today?”. Lately I have been getting very annoyed when acquaintances ask me that, such as neighbours- I have felt like saying “I’m in pain, I feel like shit, I can’t leave my house and I have about five foods I can eat.how the hell do you THINK I feel!” I love your answer- good days, bad days, today is a…..day. Love it. Maybe it will help me from alienating my neighbours and the cashier at the pharmacy (the only place I can consistently go). :-) I’m so pleased that you have friends who are so supportive. I have a few, but we are separated geographically. I’m eternally thankful for FaceTime. I’m rambling (today is a bad day, and the pain meds do not exactly make me as coherent as I’d like.

    In short, thank you, and I hope today is a good day!

  • Deb says:

    Dear Lisa,

    Your advice is so good, and it really applies to everyone, all the time. How to be a good friend, how to communicate with respect, how to connect and help people feel appreciated and unique. Love it!

    Thank you. You are special to many people.

  • Lisa Jacobson says:

    Thank you.

  • Shaybee says:

    What a gorgeous blog post! So helpful…

    The “good days and bad days” comment struck a chord with me. When my daughter was very sick, one of her friends would ask: “So, what’s today on the scale?” (The “scale” was the usual 1-10 pain scale: 10 if it’s terrible, 1 if it’s alright.)

    So if it was a very, very bad day, my daughter could say “It’s an 8″ and then things were clear. If it was a good day, she could say “It’s a 2.” Then her friend would know how to move forward accordingly.

    Now that she’s better, we still use this. It works no matter the situation.

  • Anonymous says:

    I must say, Lisa, you really hit some points that made my eyes well up with tears. I have been there, done that, and your post made it even more real and , well painful, but it was a good pain because I know now that I am so not alone in my fight .

    I had some really good friends, I thought. My very closest friend was a nurse practitioner who I thought more than anyone would stand by me through anything. Then, one day she just disappeared from my life. We had been so close for so many years, there was hardly anything about me she was not aware of, we had shared tears and laughter, and both of us had been through some downright devastating experiences. If I had to guess who would still be with me today, she would have been at the top of the list. When I realized she had distanced herself into nothingness from me, I was devastated and blamed my self at first, thinking of what “I might have said” or done wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong, but be myself, and I thought if there was one person who would understand what I was going through, it would be her. She was not only a very well educated nurse, but also a HOSPICE nurse, so there is no good excuse for her to have just departed, without even the courtesy of a goodbye. To be fair, her mother had been a breast cancer patient, and she was intimately familiar with the ups and downs of this disease. Perhaps I reminded me too much of the mother she lost to this horrifying illness. I really don’t know, and wish I did, because it haunts me every day. Then there were the good friends, ones that I had done so much for in their ups and downs, and had done for me too when the times were tough in my life, but I had never had cancer before, so I had nothing to compare how painful it was to lose them at the time when I needed closeness the most. Every single person I had counted on, even family, just acted as if I didn’t exist any longer.

    I would say to anyone who has a friend who has cancer, someday the shoe may be on the other foot and you may have a disabling disease, cancer, if you must, and you will find out what it feels like for those you are counting on the most to just depart your life. It hurts, really hurts and I hope you never have to experience it, but if it should happen to you, remember me, and remember what it did to me to be totally alone, fighting the most devastating thing to threaten my life.

    Remember me, please !!!

  • Nancy says:

    One of the hardest ones for me when my husband was dying of cancer and we had two small children was when someone would ask if there was anything they could do to help.

    And when I would ask, for some childcare, or to pick up some groceries, they would respond with reasons why they couldn’t do “that”.

    It made me feel stupid for asking, so I just stopped responding to those offers of “help”.

    Now I know what to do for others in similar situations – bring by groceries without asking, set a playdate and pick up and deliver their child etc…. Don’t make them have to ask.

  • regina says:

    My youngest cousin posted this blog on her facebook as she is fighting breast cancer. It really made think about things I have said and heard while going through my own breast cancer battle. My husbands sister just died at the end of March of 2013 from stage 4 lung cancer after a year and a half battle with it. Much, much longer than they anticipated, they never even gave her a port for chemo because they didn’t think she would make it that far. She fooled them all. As a cancer survivor, I new the importance of venting out and gave her a journal to right down her thoughts. My husband and daughter thought I was nuts giving her the journal to write in. She loved the idea. She often talked to me about the elephant in the room, her impending death in which I just listened. It was hard to listen too but I knew she needed to vent reality to someone to get her point across. I loved her dearly and will miss her terribly. when I broke my foot and didn’t do well with crutches, i went to a walker since my balance was effected from the chemo. I challenged her to a walker race of the century. she had monthes practice with the walker and would probably beat my ass but I was ready for the challenge. It made her laugh. I regret not being allowed to see her during the christmas holiday and giving her gag gifts that I bought her. she wanted her last Christmas with her kids and intimate. she wanted no fuss, funeral or flowers. No gathering of people on her behalf. My husband, children and I went over to her house two days after her death in which I still took the Christmas gifts we bought for the great neice and great nephews and the two gag gifts we bought for his sister and gave them to my brother-in-law. He immediately put them in a place of honor that his wife would have put them. In a planter to cover the flowers that were sent by a well wisher. LOL. my husbands brother is battling stage 4 esophogus cancer at this time. He asks questions about my cancer and I just tell him that each case is different and reactions to chemo are individual as well. Even as a survivor you try to keep positive for the ill and yet you know from experience, it is hard to listen to when you are going thru it. I guess my point is, even for the survivors, you can be at a lost for words for those who are now going thru it. thanks for your blog.

  • j says:

    Oh, Lisa. I think this should be required reading, not just for people who want to love their friends with cancer in the best, most helpful way they can, but for everyone, all the time. I LOVE your mom’s question. I read it and felt such a wave of relief. Of course asking what is needed is best. It’s so obvious and yet I don’t know anyone (including myself) who does it. (Well, up until now.)

    I am more grateful than I can say for the time you take to inform and advise and offer insight. Your gift to all of us astonishes me constantly.


  • tmj says:

    Thank you.

  • mark van cleve says:

    This post was mostly, again, about the wrong things to say, and why they’re wrong, but thanks very much for inserting some right things: “how can i help”, and “how was this week”. Now, there’s some educational value in posting the dumb things people have said, and if that’s how it’s intended, fine. Believe me, I’m glad to have been warned – there’s no reason for me to say more dumb things in life than I already have! But the way you keep returning to ‘wrong thing to say’ mode makes it seem more like complaining, or even ridiculing or scorning people for failing what is, after all, a pretty difficult test: You’re choosing to share with people that you have a terminal illness. By doing so, you’re asking something of them. Is it always appropriate to tell people that you’re in a terrible situation about which there is not much to do? I think it’s appropriate for you because you write so well, and others can learn from you. But by doing so you are posing people with a difficult challenge, and I think ridiculing or scorning them for that is inappropriate. What about, for every ‘stupid thing somebody said’ post, you also post a ‘great thing somebody said’?

    • Lisa Bonchek Adams says:

      The entire second half of this post is suggestions on what to say and/or do (not the two things you mention, but pointed things to say and do). I think if you look again you’ll see many suggestions in the piece.

      I think it’s important to discuss what people say and educate precisely why those things might not be the best choices. That’s what this post does (again, the whole second half) is to give people alternatives about what to say instead of what their first reaction might be.

      If you are a friend you want to learn. My readers do. They beg me to help them find words when they are unsure what to say to people in their lives who have various illnesses/medical situations. I think this piece provides some.

      As a friend a person should want to learn, grow, and find out how to support a person who needs them during the most desperate time in his/her life. It IS a difficult challenge. But do you think the challenge is more important than trying to support your friend or loved one? Shouldn’t it be about THEIR challenge, not yours?

      Thanks for reading.

  • Co-Worker says:


    I have been following your blog for a while because I think you are a great writer and I have much to learn from you. Until this week, I did not have anyone in my life for whom I needed this particular post…

    Now I have a dilemma and seek advice from you and your readers. A co-worker of mine has been diagnosed with CUP spread to two secondary sites. The long-term outlook is not good. He is a very private person when it comes to his personal life – in four years I have never even met his wife and young daughter. But at work, for work-related discussions, we have been close… partners in crime.

    It is further complicated by the fact that he is in my line management, so my daily mission has in some part been to keep him happy and do anything I can to make his day easier. It’s part of my life and i enjoy that mission. I want to continue to help, but much of what he will need won’t be work-related as the weeks pass.

    I care very much about him and want to be there for him, but I don’t want to intrude on his privacy, either, or seem as though my concern is a) only job-related or b) artificially imposed by his diagnosis. He said he is compartmentalizing at work… So to talk about it seems insensitive but to NOT talk about it seems insensitive too.

    Has anyone been in this situation, or can you offer advice? I can’t bring him meals or drive him places, but I want to help. He may choose to leave the company at some point but he is a very strong type-A workaholic type and I suspect finds comfort in his office routine. It is where he has control.

    I don’t know… I am at a loss. Thanks for reading this.

  • Christine Carter says:

    I ran into this site while looking for information about Stage IV breast cancer as I just learned today about my sister’s diagnosis. I appreciate the reminders about what not to say. This is education that so many of us need. It seems to me that the cancer is about the person who has it. What would make me feel comfortable or understand may be completely different from what the person with cancer may want or need. As a parent of two children with autism I am familiar with “helpful” comments. I appreciate good intentions, but I want more than that for my sister. I want to be able to help her, even if it is in just the tiniest way. (Sorry if this post is a little off topic. I just finished reading the first : “what not to say”, so my brain is concentrating on that.)

  • homa_bird says:

    Hello, just found your blog, love your honesty and passion for your family and for your life.

    Had a very concrete reaction to this particular blog about wrong things people say. Background: my healthy, strong, beautiful grandson ( I was at his birth as he came to us that beautiful night on the side of a mountain with a strong circle of women surrounding my daughter) was diagnosed out of the blue (his momma found a small lump in his abdomen) with a very aggressive and serious, rare cancer at age 15 months. He’s just finishing radiation, getting ready for 6 months of painful antibody therapy, on the tails of full throttle 7 chemos over the last 7 months, major side effects too heartbreaking to detail, surgery, nearly dying in a coma from post op blood infection, bone marrow transplant etc etc. Our formerly plump and indestructible toddler is a rail thin, bald but joyous and extraordinary two year old now.

    I’ve spent weeks in the hospital, sleeping on a couch in the playroom, fearful for my daughter’s mental health (she’s stronger than all of us put together, turns out, and she’s doin it alone: the absent father of the baby has teetered into dysfunction, unable to cope) watching her friends drift away, and mine to some extent as we’ve harbored down with this journey. I’ve been there every step of the way with my daughter, good bad and ugly, and it’s been a heartbreaking and difficult journey. Grandparents must watch two beloveds suffer: it’s like going to an endless crucifixion of your heart and soul.

    This has also been one of the most gorgeous and beautiful times of my life. Sorrow and beauty woven into the most gorgeous fabric I’ve ever had the privilege of beholding. My faith in a beautiful design to the universe and every action of every day, every insect and human and waterfall has never been stronger. Every trite thing ever written about suffering is true. It does make us stronger, more loving, more alive, if we let it.

    So here’s what I have to say about this blog post: Yes, so many people have said “inappropriate” things. So the hell what. Cancer is about looking beyond the surface, it’s about growing past your boundary and envelope to see what’s most important. Cancer is the most spiritual, transformative journey you can ever hope to go on. It’s a privilege. I’ve come to see chemo as an almost spiritual elixir, burning all but the core miracle away, taking away all control and leaving pure faith behind.

    And those strangers or friends struggling to say the right thing, those who drift away for their own reasons: I say look beyond their perceived betrayal, their ineptness and errors of speech or action. Cancer asks us to get in touch with something so much more important. Love. love love love love love. Forgiveness, understanding, peace. Growth connection acceptance.

    The struggle of those who haven’t found the right thing to say to someone obviously in crisis/trauma is both heartwarming and beautiful to witness. I don’t care what comes out of their mouth. We are all in this together. Look for peace and calm and acceptance in yourself, (which you are doing beautifully by the way, it’s a hell of a process) and you won’t need people to say the right thing. If they put their foot in their mouth, you wont hear that, you’ll see the beauty of their effort, you’ll understand, maybe help them gently towards saying something better next time. It’s a goal, anyway. Blog posts like this can make folks fearful of saying anything. I’d hate to see that happen.

    Maybe it’s just this: two wrongs don’t make a right. If a wrong or hurtful or insensitive thing was said, it seems natural to strike back and say it was stupid and wrong of this person. But perhaps by far the better solution would be to stop the cycle of hurt, like a road block. Spin it to a higher place. Cancer asks so much of all of us. Why not this too? Don’t hear the stupid words coming out of their mouth, look into their eyes and see who they really are: fellow travelers looking for love, acceptance, connection. Doin their best.

    You are a special, special woman. Your blog is fabulous. Best of all good things to you. Thanks for listening.

    • Anon, UK says:

      “This has also been one of the most gorgeous and beautiful times of my life.”

      But this isn’t really about you, is it? It is the most cruel, unfair and heartbreaking thing that could happen to your daughter and grandson.

      • Alice Readmond says:

        Homa and Anon, I see what you are both saying. What Homa is saying is true, in her perspective. Since it is happening to her, too, it is about her, too. And Homa’s explanation already helped me to cope more positively with some of my perceptions of inappropriate comments, etc., by others, without disregard for respect for myself or my husband. And Anon, you are also right, from the perspective of the child and his mother. These are two very poignant and diverse perspectives, and both are helpful for me. Thanks to both for your “brutal” honesty.

    • linny says:

      Well said….One needs to concentrate on getting better, keeping their stress levels low, and heart & souls open for survival. Most people mean well. Not all can express their conerns, questions, and love in their hearts for your pain you are going through. Express your pain , shed some tears, it’s normal and no one going through chemotherapy needs to put up a wall for everyone. Everyone truly understands and feels your pain. I don’t believe anyone deliberately wants to insult or hurt their friend by saying something you may feel is inappropriate. They may being trying hard to express their heartache for you inside but it just comes out wrong. Yes, ….”love,” embrace everyone who wants to help, concentrate on getting better, regaining your strength, taking care of you. If you can’t explain to all your friends it’s tiring to talk on the phone but you will text when you are up and feeling well, have a family member or close friend or neighbor tell them. Some People are clueless with cancer , and or symptoms of chemotherapy and need to be educated. Talk and keep your friends in the loop with someone else if you can’t. just a text to let them know how you are doing by someone else. Some just feel they do not want to bother you , not realizing it feel like abandonment. Communication with truths how you really feel, and what you are going through puts others in another mode to communicate more, be there and support you more. God Bless everyone in this situation and may everyone find peace and love in their hearts for themselves and others who truly understand the hell you are going through.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve had some VERY hurtful things said to me after my breast cancer diagnosis, and possible double mastectomy. Most revolved around the fact that losing your breasts was no big deal to how breast cancer is now curable — like it was no biggie.

      News flash — it was a big deal, and I happen to love my breasts.

      I think what has happened in many of these situations, is that people I knew put their own fears and worries out there by making light of them. It wasn’t about me at all, but about THEIR fears. And you know what, what they said was VERY hurtful at times. I had many decisions to make and lots of info to process. Those kinds of comments just didn’t help.

      There were actually people whom I pulled away from because they were toxic to me. While incredibly sick, I didn’t need those types of people around me. I didn’t need more pain heaped on me. Yes, we all make mistakes in what we say, but sometimes, it’s just too much to take when things are so painful and heart wrenching to begin with.

      I wish you and your family all the best.


  • Floyd Winquist says:

    Although I do not have cancer (am 73 years old) two of my sisters have died from it, both at the age of 56. Having been retired for 17 years my pass time hobbies have gradually shifted from the physical activities to the more mental ones. My favorite during the last five years has been Molecular Biology of the Cell and in particular during the last three The Biology of Cancer. In this latter area, professor Robert A. Weinberg’s (of MIT and Head & of the Whitehead Institute for Cancer Research) book on cancer as well as his lectures on iTunesU have been my prime sources of information. Cancer is a dreadful disease and probably the most challenging one for scientists throughout the world to overcome with today’s technology.

    However, to get on topic, recently we had new next door neighbors move in, the husband being a Dean at a mid-west University. Although we live in the Pacific Northwest nowadays with the Internet you can pretty much find information about anyone anywhere in the world. In this case, by reading the University’s on-line news letter I was surprised to learn that he had just retired due to health issues (he is still relatively very young). About one month later his spouse sent us a email informing us he had cancer and they would soon be having a family gathering to celebrate his life. Here is an excerpt of our response:
    “We are very sorry to hear that XYZZY is battling cancer, last June we read the article in the ABC Newsletter that he was resigning as the Dean @ ABC School due to illness but did not know it was cancer. The Seattle area is one of the best places in the World to get treatment for this disease and we hope his therapy here drives it quickly into remission.

    Please let us know if we can be of assistance in any way.”

    We hope this provided some level of comfort to them, last week we learned from their son that his father has Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer.


  • Lawrence Bose says:

    Thats so true. Just cause mybhair grew back ppl assume im getting better snd the cancers gone. I tell everone to get educated on the disease brforecspeakingvsbout it. Frustrating

  • Carolyn Thomas says:

    This article is so important, Lisa – and not just for those living with a cancer diagnosis, but for anybody facing a serious, frightening and progressive illness. I love that “We Love You, Lisa” song/video – and may even steal that sweet idea, if I may.

    I worked for many years in hospice/palliative care, where we often heard firsthand of the stupefyingly thoughtless comments people would make to both our patients and their loved ones. Often, people didn’t even know how to respond to some of these ‘well-meaning’ comments.

    One of our bereavement counsellors once observed that often these comments (like the classic “Well, at least you look good!”) stem not from the fabulousness of your appearance, but from pure relief that you don’t look as hideous as they feared. Because if you looked that bad, it could create awkwardness or shock or pity – and who knows what might be blurted out then? Yet another example of how so many, in the face of unpleasantness that they would just rather not look at, revert to the belief that this topic is somehow about THEM – not the person living with the unpleasantness.

    A common reaction among those who learned about my heart attack, for example, was some variation on the theme of their Aunt Sophie (who had clearly suffered a far more interesting heart attack than mine). Not helpful.

    As you correctly point out, meaning well isn’t enough. Thanks so much, Lisa, for your efforts at educating the rest of us.

  • Michelle says:

    You don’t know me but are a friend of a friend, so to speak. After having lived through many losses and wanting to provide support to others myself, I found it interesting to read your perspectives on what to say or not to say to someone who’s ill.

    We all struggle for just that “right” thing to say even when we know someone very well. As mere humans, we never really know where someone is emotionally on that particular day and time. I just hope that people don’t stop reaching out to other because they feel they “messed up” in the past. That would hurt our friends worse, that they may feel forgotten. Thank you for sharing your insights and perspective.

    I’m hoping that one day you believe in miracles.

  • mike says:

    thank you. my dad is in his last days. he told me today. next time i call no one might answer. blew me away. but i stayed strong like you said.i will love him allways. like i told him. ill keep his ph number always.life is love. remember this always. thanks

  • Lyn Botha says:

    Oh Liza … Thank you Thank you Thank you. The worst part of my cancer journey
    has been the reaction of some of my “friends” and family. I thought it was my fault.
    I felt so disliked and rejected. Some were so toxic I have had to reject them!
    Your statement about losing friends…. well, I cried – with relief! I certainly do
    appreciate the very few real ones left. And thanks to you, as from today I will
    live each day with my head held high and much lighter hearted and happier – come
    what may. Yes today is a hellova good day.
    I wish you the same.

  • Serena Scott Thomas says:

    Thank you! xoxox

  • Dan says:

    Wow, I wish I could post what I just posted. Being sad and stopped because I did not fill in the required fields……eracing in the process seemed to take all the feeling out.

  • Bobbi says:

    My niece is battling stage 3 ovarian cancer.She started chemo yesterday and I am glad that I read your article.It will definitely help me to help her better.I have to admit that I have been guilty of saying “If there is anything I can do let me know”statement.It was truly sincere at the time but I get now what you mean about its vagueness.I recently went through a traumatic experience with my son.One of the most hurtful things about it was that none of my neighbors that have lived next to me for thirty years said anything to me and they knew what my family was going through.My thoughts are that it is better to say something even if it may not be perfect.If it comes from the heart and is sincere there is no wrong thing to say.

  • N S says:

    I saw this while googling a cancer issue. All I can say is I have heard all those things and some. :( I was diagnosed with Burkitts lymphoma in 2011 and endured six months of inpatient chemotherapy. I had a mass in the middle of my chest 26 percent of body. I am here today to say thank you God:) as for all those horrible comments I am still enduring it. I have since returned to work, not the same person I was before, mentally or physically. I cannot do long days and work no more than 8 hours. The horrible comments , from coworkers I have been hearing….she shouldn’t be here if she can’t work 16 hours, she is unfit for duty, etc. I had limited friends prior to this and found out that even the best of them can shock you. I was in the hospital for long stays, would be horribly ill … I received a text after I had been there for three plus days saying, hi and blah blah
    Blah about their own issues… When I finally spoke to the person on the phone they said where have you been??? I said, the same place I was when I was dropped off last week, the hospital !!!! Now a concerned person would have called the hospital and or nurses station…. Right ? The answer I received was oh your still there…. I am struggling to this very moment with all that has occurred. I endured this alone, exception of niece and my son who was in school full time & working full time. I have 25 years in at my job , if I could retire now I would. have five more years and hAve no one but my elderly father for financial help. This has changed me sooo much, I look at the world and people much differently. My dream is too move to a remote country area, help other people with this disease and have pets. Humble I am and so saddened that others are so self absorbed and hurtful. One last note this stays with me and hurt so badly… I lost all my hair within three week, I accepted it and realized how hair is just so unimportant, we as women put so much into it. We all fall into the vicious cycle of believing it makes us pretty. I cut and shaved my hair to prepare myself. A friend called me throughout my treatment to complain her hair was thinning and she felt ugly and was seeing a dermatologist… Okay my thoughts were but really your complaining about this too WHO???? :) Finally right before Xmas I told her just cut it short and maybe it will look better and thickene up….. Well she went nuts arguing with me and saying that YOU might like short hair but I don’t. I had enough and said actually I had long hair if you don’t remember and due to cancer I now have none with it just starting to come back in!!!!! And it gets worse….I distanced myself from anyone and everyone who disappointed, let me down, etc…. This person wrote me a nice Xmas letter to say how dare I quit speaking to her since our argument about hair, and what because I almost died no one could be mean to me anymore….. Yes that was actually said and wrote to me during Xmas 2011.
    I lead a very simple life now and looking at everything with appreciation.

  • NS says:

    Hello again…. Just another thought on people and their reactions. My boss and friend says to me when I came back to work….you scare everyone, you make them aware of their mortality. So very true, I was just hoping that I would remind them to be a little kinder and thankful.

  • Lyn says:

    Hi there NS.

    So sorry you have had to endure the sad horrible side of human nature. I’ve battled with it too. Keep focused on the few people who do care…. scrap the rest.
    Not easy to do
    this without bitterness. But worth the effort. Eventually one does become content
    within oneself and grateful for very little things. And like you say, hair is terribly
    overrated in the whole scheme of things!! This terrible experience does somehow
    help us to become wiser – but the price is high. On the down days when you feel
    alone…. remember you are not ever alone…. we are united in this together somehow.
    We have learnt a hard lesson about “friends”. I take a lot of responsibility for their
    behaviour as before my cancer I didnt expect equal treatment, and thought when I
    needed it they would be there for me. Didnt work that way, seems like one has to
    live being totally honest with our needs and self respect even in the good times,
    and then when bad times come along.. maybe… our friends and acquaintances will know they
    cant treat us badly. Maybe like me your patience with petty nonsense is short now, so it is not hard to live without some of the irritating people who say ugly things.
    Start right now thinking yourself into a good place about yourself.
    You are great. Like yourself and think of
    yourself with pride. Congratulate yourself on the courage youve shown. Walk with
    your head high.

    I’ll end on a humourous note ( well it is now). I had just come out of hospital after having breast surgery and lymph glands removed. Still not able to use arm. One of my former “friends” visited me with her 11 month of grandchild. Her husband dropped
    her off and she realised she had left the nappies in the car. She sat down and told
    me to quickly run after the car and stop him and get the nappies out of the car. When
    I said phone him on his cell….. she pulled this really awful spiteful face and said she
    might as well do it herself… well she did then went on to tell me that I was very stressed out today!!!! I honestly wondered if she even remembered that I had a cancer op. Another one of my clowns I used to think of as a friend said…. when I told her
    I had cancer… and I got a new watch and a new car with 7 gears!!!! Yet another told me it was all in my head! Then dont you love the ones who ask how you are and if
    you dare to tell the truth and say you feel not so good today, they tell you not to be
    negative…. be positive. Well dear, I am being positive, I feel positively shitty today!!

    Hope you are smiling.

  • Lori says:

    Help me, please! I want to be there for my BFF friend of many years who recently found out she has stage 3 uterine cancer. I was the first person she called when she got the results. I’ve told her I can be there for/with her for anything she needs me to help her with. Just ask me, don’t hesitate!! See……she has been there for me for almost everything I have asked of her. Favors, last minute requests, practically helped me move my house in one night when I was having new carpet put in the next day, and many more. She’s not ever asked me to help her out as she has done for me. I always ask her to let me repay her some way. And now, especially, I’ve let her know if/when she needs me I am there for her. However, when I talk with her she tells me she “had” a Dr. appointment yesterday or in the past week. She doesn’t say she “has” an appointment. I asked her if she was having a port inserted and offered to take her if needed. She had said her sister was taking her and when I talked with her last Wednesday her sister couldn’t take her so her friend came down from Ventura and took her. I live 20 min. away not 2 hours. Yes, I was hurt. So, needless to say, I will call and/or go by to check on her. I will listen when we talk, I can wait to see if she asks me to assist her with anything she needs. I will be there for her but I can not continue to beg to help. Yes, speaking from this point of view as the friend of a friend who has cancer……..it’s not about ME as the above reads, it’s about her 100%. It appears she doesn’t want (my) help. I WANT to be one of those friends that will be there through the good and the bad. I know her, she’d be there if the situation was reversed. I’m just so confused.

  • Jim says:

    Just found out on facebook an old friend has cancer and I wanted to respond. Your site helped me understand a little better what and why I wanted to say.

  • Ruth says:

    I came to this site to find words to comfort a reltive who has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and have found some very helpful ideas but I was surprised at the lack of religious response. I can’t even imagine dealing with an issure like this with no faith or belief. It really saddens me.
    I am 70 yrs. old, have never had cancer but have had numerous tragedies and trials in my life and I am so thankful for a strong foundation of faith. When my first baby died at 3 wks old, I was 18 and hadn’t thought much about anything. This got my attention and I began a life-long search for answers. At 26, I was still confused and trying to find my way. Jesus came to me in a dream/vision. He shone so brightly I could hardly look upon Him. I felt His great love for me. I heard the words, “This is Christ, come fulfilled.” There is a God and Jesus is a best friend who will be with you always. When friends desert you, Jesus is always there to help you through, all you have to do is ask. It’s not too late.
    His angels are with you always too. I discovered my angels several years ago and they never let me down, never. Again, all you have to do is ask and make the decision to believe, it’s your choice.
    I do believe in miracles. Every day people in some part of the world live through things they shouldn’t have. It wasn’t their time, we don’t leave until our time is up. People have fallen out of airplanes and lived, been struck by lightning and lived. There is a man in our church who was badly injured in a 4-wheeler accident. He shouldn’t have survived the crash but he did. He was paralyzed from the neck down and assured that he would never walk again. But he decided that he was going to walk. He focused continually on the Bible verse: “I can do anything through Christ who strengthens me.” And of course, he asked for help throughout his ordeal. His injuries were more severe than Christopher Reeves but today he walks! And he knows there is a God. He certainly believes in miracles, and he praises God everyday for the miralce of his life. If you accept Jesus, he will make Himself known to you and will be with you throughout your ordeal and into eternity.
    I don’t know if this will help anyone or not but you don’t have to go it alone, there is divine help for the asking. God bless you all.

  • Heather Fritzler says:

    Thank you for all your do’s & donts. I’m already guilty of some of them. I stumble & get stuck on the right thing to say at those moments of silence. Seems careless. I mean only the best but if I’m not helping then whats the point in calling at all? So I’m here for help. My sis in law is a stage 4 lung cancer survivor. Clean for months. Now a very small mass was found. Drs waited 3 months. Now its grown & the biopsy is Tuesday. I want to be a better supporter this time. Her care takers, mom & brother (her husband) are burned out & quite frankly not the healthiest supporters for her anymore. Theyre tired & frustrated & need a break. I can see this, I hear the depression ~ I’m scared for all involved & I need direction to get Sharon the support she needs from family. I need help getting help for my brother who is in serious need of a support group for spouses. I want to get my brother Bill & his Wife Sharon involved right away to be able to talk to Other people who are dealing with similar situations & vent & love & feel free to express how their day went. They are both suffering from depression & exhaustion. Any info is greatly appreciated. I will forward this site to them now. Its already helped me.
    Thank you

  • Megan says:

    I just found your blog after reading an NPR article about an op-ed. I finished chemo in December for stage IIb breast cancer. Surgery was last week. Radiation and years of hormone therapy to come. I’m 35 and my kids are young and I’m up way too late reading about ‘survivorship’. Thank you for writing. Thank you for saying some of what I feel. I’ll come back and read more another day.

  • Nisha says:

    My father in law has small cell carcinoma of bladder…it was diagnosed a year before…I really don’t know what I should say or do for him to make him feel better…I have never been in a situation like this…I have been with sick people but this is different…I want to help and make him feel better…but at the same time I don’t want to hurt him saying out of concern which he might take differently…

  • Lisa says:


    Thank you so much for this.THANK YOU.

    I’ve never had cancer, but I’ve dealt with a much-misunderstood chronic pain condition for almost a decade. The advice you give to friends about how to talk to a cancer patients works for chronic illness and invisible disability, too. I’m almost always alone now because friends are either too far away or too busy with their own lives. They may care about me, but that doesn’t usually translate into action.

    People don’t understand critical OR chronic illness worth a damn. They don’t understand that “call me if you need anything” puts us in the position of begging for scraps. That “oh, you’ll beat this!” makes you feel like a failure when the “this” isn’t something you can “beat.” That you might not feel well enough for months or more to go see them, and is it really all that much trouble for them to come see you (but you don’t say that, because you can’t make them feel bad). It’s exhausting trying to manage everyone’s feelings AND my illness.

    I’m so grateful to you for sharing everything you have. It’s a mitzvah to so many of us.

  • Sandy says:

    I lost my son 5 months ago, from an overdose of pain medications. He was our only child. I just learned that my dearest friend has lung cancer. She has been my rock since losing my son. I am just devastated by this news. I am grieving the loss of my son, and now this. I want so badly to be there for her, but all I do is cry. How do I be strong for her, when I am already weak? She really is my only close friend.

  • Stacy says:

    I just learned about your blog and this topic is my pet peeve issue. Thank you, Lisa, for saying so well what I am always feel. I cannot bear to hear one more person tell me I need to have a positive attitude, or that we are all going to die someday – essentially, what’s the big deal with having advanced cancer – or how they could get hit by a bus, or how (surprisingly) well I look.

  • susan says:

    Lisa, what a wonderful blog that will help us. Having been in this with many good days along with those awful ones, I find that sometimes it really is me who is stopping friends, acquaintances, neighbors from coming or helping or even talking. My family is with me forever and so often that is enough! I volunteer so much, patient advocacy is an amazing pick me up as I continue with metastatic ups and downs. Not talking but staying home and relaxing, reading , writing is all I want. And then when ready I am out in the world again
    But the path with advanced breast cancer is often hidden well, so at times I just want a normalcy and I am sure that I have shrugged off “friends” help-the ones that don’t know what to say but mean well.
    The worst things for me are those comments from, believe it or not, true friends about alternatives and would have, could have, should have when obviously I do everything and anything I can do. There is a know it all vibe there whether it is discussed or not and I cannot stand it! We all know the vegan marathoners religious positive shark cartilage eaters who died all too soon and those out of shape br. cancered who live many years. There is so much individuality for this disease. Taking oral pills seems like nothing to outsiders and they do not see the side effects that are with me daily, my hair is here, and they know nothing about the fear and sadness when the numbers continue to rise and I count on fingers of both hands and soon need to add my toes as I change treatments, all the therapies that have failed me before I got to this “easy” drug that only minimally is working. It is easier for friends to see when I am in the ICU or hospital for related problems, but when out, not hooked to iv’s, then , yes, I must look cured and ready to body-talk, acupuncture, vitamin binge, climb Mt. Everest, forget breast cancer and do what great aunt Mary’s neighbors’ daughters’ hairdresser’s daughter did to cure her cancer. We all read your words here but they should be plastered all over the non-breast cancer world for help. So many of us too say the wrong thing for friends with illness or who have lost a loved one. You finally show some positive approaches. Thank you for sharing so beautifully.

  • […] has cancer and the other person doesn’t. [read this fantastic riposte in a comment left on Lisa Bonchek Adam's blog:  "yeah, everybody is going to die some day, so I'll let you go […]

  • Philip says:

    You are so brave n so admire you for it.. I dare not tell my family cos don’t want to upset them.. Let them grieve whem I’m gone, not now xx

  • Susan says:

    My hope is that Lisa is alive since this was written almost a year ago. I found this quite by accident. I was looking for article’s on why I am so angry that my sister’s friends could be there for each other but not for her. These friends that she helped so much through their tough times in life, left my sister while she fought for life. I am so mad at them! I had to hear my sister cry as one friend would set up days to come over and not show up. It hurt her and me as we had some of the same friends. Sadly, even though my sister never stopped fighting and had chemo til the end she died almost 2 years ago.
    This article has helped me so much. I honestly thought it was just my sister who went through this. I didn’t know others lost friends. I wish everyone could read this. If I hear one more person tell me that they loved my sister so much and how much she did for them, I am going to ask what they did for her and walk away!

  • NP says:

    A long time ago (over a decade ago) I loved very much a woman (it was unrequited love).

    Being in love with her I had the energy to create something (related to music; a musical instrument) which has been used by many people in universities, in studios, in concerts, a lot of music is created with it, and also there are thousands of videos on youtube related to it and there are several communities around it. Perhaps every moment there are thousands or tens of thousands of people around the world who use it (I haven’t restricted it in any way; it was not made for money and that is why anyone can use it).

    I tried unsuccesfully (as I could…because I am love-shy) over many years to find an occasion to show that to her and also to say to her: “Because of you I created it” (I meet her extremely rarely; I don’t think we have talked more than 2 hours all my life). So, she still doesn’t know the impact she had (indirectly) on many, many, people; and even after many years the impact is getting bigger and bigger. She is not married and I don’t know for sure if she is in a relationship.

    Last year I found out that she got very ill: she has leukemia (AML). Now she is in remission and I hope that the leukemia doesn’t relapse.

    I would like an opinion from a cancer patient on telling her about what I created. Should I tell her about this on next occasion?
    As a cancer patient, what would you think and feel if someone had done a similar thing because of you?

    Thank you very much for your answer.

    • Lisa Bonchek Adams says:

      I’ll weigh in… I think if you tell someone something like that and say “I just wanted you to know…” There is is never harm with that. It could — and very well might — mean a lot to her and since you want nothing from her and haven’t gained anything by it, it’s just a lovely thought with best wishes that she remain in remission. No expectations. I don’t see personally see anything wrong with that.

  • […] What is the worst part of this for you and how can I help make that a bit easier for you?" http://lisabadams.com/2013/04/05/som…rious-illness/ __________________ "A Dead Tree Full of Live Birds" Lionel […]

  • Laura says:

    I appreciate the message here, that there are some things that are clearly better to say to folks with cancer than others, I actually googled what NOT to say, because I’ve read often about people being offended by the stupid and thoughtless “words of comfort” offered in times of sickness and death. The danger is that we all become so afraid of saying the wrong thing that we don’t say anything, and this is a really bad choice too. Before I lost my parents, I was afraid to speak to people about the death of loved ones, for example, because I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing and upsetting someone at work. Since the death of my own parents though, I’ve learned that it’s not as important what somebody says as it is they say SOMETHING to acknowledge the illness or the death. I make a point now always to say something to those who are sick or have lost a loved one. Most of the time I just tell them I have thought of them, I am sorry, I would like to help if I can. I send them a card. Last week my fear of making someone cry at work came to pass. A workmate had been out of work because of her partner’s illness and surgery, that’s all I knew. When she returned I greeted her, said the above things and then asked her if she would like to tell me the nature of her partner’s illness. At this point she broke down in tears and told me about this grueling cancer discovery and near fatal surgery. I felt horrible for her tears, but I have vowed not to just say nothing in the face of illness and death, as I had done previously, and as some others did when I lost my parents. There is never one correct answer to what should I say and what should I not say – just saying something/acknowledging seems to be the most important thing. My workmate was not offended by my question, she is just exhausted and extremely emotional right now. We have talked more about her friend’s illness and, though I don’t know him, I have sent him some tummy friendly healthy foods as he tries to heal and embrace a healthy lifestyle. I feel like it helps more than anything to know you are thought of.
    It’s just this whole… and you should never NEVER say this…that still makes me very uneasy. If you listened to all the things you should never ever say, there wouldn’t be much left to say -

  • John says:

    I stumbled upon your site looking for a way to respond to WMPs (Well Meaning People). I lost a kidney 5 years ago to kidney cancer, 2 years later I was diagnosed w bladder cancer, a year later the kidney cancer mets to my lung, and just recently the bladder cancer returned and after a recent surgery I’ve just started an aggressive chemo regimen. I try to keep positive but the chemo takes a lot out of me.
    When first diagnosed I recall one appt with one of my oncologists and when asked she told be that on average my survival odds were 4-6 years. On the way home I was trying to be strong and was consoling my wife who was crying in the car, but I was crying on the inside, it seemed so bass-ackwards.
    I have come to know and lose many dear friends to cancer since I was first diagnosed so I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Each of us handles it in our own way but I believe the hardest time is when you first learn, I know it was quite the emotional roller coaster for me and continues to be, however my family and closest friends have been there for me.
    What I find meaningless are the posts that WMPs continually post on social media stating “share if you know someone who is fighting cancer”. Their intentions may be good and they may indeed know of a friend or family member undergoing the pain, but as someone who is fighting, at least for me, I do not wish to see that sort of comment. Does that seem insensitive or cruel? How would you respond? I mean there are other ways for WMPs to help FUCK CANCER. I’d appreciate your thoughts and how you’d respond to these WMPs. Thank you and I do hope you are having a good day.

  • Varun says:

    Thanks very much, it has helped me in understanding and communicating with my friend, whose brother is suffering from cancer

  • Michael Mills says:

    For those of us struggling to find the “right thing to say” to an afflicted friend or loved one, just bear in mind that THERE IS NO “right thing to say”! What reassures and comforts person A might anger and insult person B. Since no two people are alike, then it follows that no two reactions will be alike. Speaking as a cancer patient myself, I have heard everything! Believe me! In some cases I would like to believe their intentions were good, in other cases, I’m not so sure! Sometimes I get the impression that patting themselves on the back for “helping you” is more important to them than actually helping you! Easing THEIR conscience takes priority over easing YOUR pain! When recovering from my cancer surgery, (kidney removal), I actually had one fellow take credit for my recovery, saying: “Now see! You’re getting better because WE WERE PRAYING FOR YOU!” Never mind my efforts or the efforts of the doctors and nurses! Riddle me this: if “praying for me” was all it took, what was the point of the surgery?
    Now in my case, pep talks or prayer offers of any kind are definitely NOT the right things to say. If my situation is critical, then pep talks are worthless. If my situation is minor, then pep talks are needless. When someone says “I’ll say a prayer for you” or “I’ll keep you in my prayers”, I’m sure they think they’re doing the right thing, but to me they’re just pushing me off on God so they won’t have to do anything for me themselves! “I’ll bow my head for you, but I won’t lift a finger for you!” Gee, thanks!
    One thing we might say to someone in their time of need is: “I don’t know of any magic words that will make this all go away, so rather than put my foot in my mouth, make a fool of myself, and make a bad situation worse, I’ll offer my support with actions, not words!”

  • […] What to say to someone with cancer […]

  • Tamala LaFleur says:

    Thank you, I’m saying goodbye to one of the most special people I’ll ever be privileged to know. I watch as he ablidges everyone’s wishes and only want to love him you just gave me the answers to do just that

  • […] I’m going to let you go first”. [this brilliant riposte was left by a reader on Lisa Bonchek Adam's blog - this post and its commments is the best I've come across so far on the topic of what to […]

  • Friend says:

    Hi, thanks for this blog. It is so helpful. I have a friend with Stage IV cancer. It has spread to her bones and brain. She is in a lot of pain and going through a rough time. I’m struggling with what to say when she is going through a bad day. “Let me do xyz”, and “I’m so sorry that you are going through this”, just doesn’t seem like it’s enough. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

    • Michael Mills says:

      To Friend, When words don’t seem be enough, as is so often the case, try going non-verbal! Just sit with her, hold her, laugh with her, cry with her. If you’re at a loss for words, just tell her so. I’m sure she’ll understand. That’s the nasty thing about a cancer diagnosis. Not only is it a predicament for the one receiving the diagnosis, but for everyone else as well, friends and family alike! If she wants to talk about her condition, just listen. Let her know that there’s so much you would like to say, but you just don’t know how. Even the most clumsy effort beats no effort at all! Just be there for her!

  • susan says:

    Just rereading this post, Lisa, and the comments and thanking you again for sharing such important insights.
    For years and years in my role as Reach to Recovery volunteer for first timers and since 2000 for the Advanced patient, and in my panels and advocacy involvement, I have listened to the concerns and fears. And first and foremost, I hear over and over, the sense of failure, the frustrations, the sadness that they have caused this cancer, especially the return. That somehow they are not strong enough, do not think positively, eat the wrong foods. They cannot regain their control in life and its their fault.
    They often have not been made aware that in breast cancer the chance of recurrence or metastasis is as high as 30%. Initial breast cancer concerns after deciding on treatment had been reconstruction issues, loss of hair, getting back to work.
    They are not aware of the dormancy of the genes which are resistant to therapies, they are left to believe they can “beat” this again, especially as the cancer free years add up (and they do, often breast cancer returns, 5, 10, 20, even 30 years later), be courageous, that continual physician surveillance and scans will catch it again before it spreads.
    When it does come back, when it spreads to bone or other organs, that it now is incurable but treatable, they believe they are the rare unlucky ones the failures. Then, as they move on in the metastatic world (yes we all do) feeling better and stronger, looking fine, quietly and non-dramatically taking one treatment after the other, the infusions, the injections, the pills as cells become resistant and change is needed, watching others having harder times, they hear over and over the words so innocent and well meaning, about how strong they are. It’s the attitude, they look so great, they are an inspiration.
    They, as am I, usually do not need the help yet. Many have wonderful spouses or partners and family support and mostly turn down the offers of help, not because we are martyrs, but because we are ok. Things of course in the cancer journey do change and during my times the cancer causes hospitalizations, the cures I have taken do indeed affect our immune system, cause serious complications, and those they see. But we often are taken to the brink and do bounce back, and that is when those positive attitude type comments are never ending and my heroism becomes what is shared with newly diagnosed and the cycle continues. I become the example they share with daughter in law or Aunt Shirley. They have seen me and are convinced its my way of dealing with disease that has “made the difference” and this will help others to becoming cured!
    To those friends who do want to help– listening and not getting off the phone (if they have advanced to not saying what is on their minds) and thinking , if only she meditated, yogad, tried x, y, z, prayed, took iron pills, and on and on. FRiends can do their own research, they can understand as one commenter wrote, that positive attitude is truly wonderful to get through the cancer and move on but has, in my opinion, absolutely no way of beating cancer. I have known through my travels in the cancer advocacy nation, the most upbeat, athletic, healthy eaters, glass half full women and men who will not deviate one iota the progression of disease. It is what it is. Well meaning friends need to understand that each person’s travels are unique, that’s the mystery of cancer. I got into volunteering and advocacy for the one point, to encourage consultations if they want to learn more about what is new in breast cancer and if they live near a cancer center all the better. Writing down questions to ask clinicians, better understanding their particular pathology, knowing where to go for financial or emotional support, and to help them try to not second guess, blame themselves, and understand that attitude can help get you through the days you have which might, in Lisa and my case, be more than you ever thought.
    I have shared so often your wonderful words, Lisa, “Find a bit of beauty every day…..”
    Enjoy the minutes which will be important to you and others, understand that not every day will be easy, and no self blaming. When I was hospitalized, so serious, my children sent out updates and the amazing people in my life responded, respected our privacy but also showed by actions and words that they cared and were there to help. No one believed that I would survive, and now I am doing well really, and they see me as upbeat, looking good, and I repeat , an inspiration. I need to share now, in writing again following up the emails sent by my family, how I am. But I want to somehow get into this the thoughts that you have expressed so well. Every day there will be new cancers for many of us and them, and hopefully what I and what you write about will help them as they deal with the new cancer normal. Maybe they can have some better way to share the positive attitude, hero attitude for what it really is and maybe just maybe they will have some insight into why all of us dislike the words and the feel good books they all want to send.

  • Joelo Martin says:

    This is helpful, I have this friend of mine who have a mental illness that makes us cautious on talking with him or being with and we don’t know how to get near him or how to address him. But with this article. I’m sure will have a better way of making a conversation.

  • […] What to say to someone with cancer/thoughts on how to be a friend to someone with a serious illness […]

  • Norm Farrell says:

    Hi, Lisa,

    I have a friend in the hospital who apparently is discovering that doctors don’t know what is wrong with him, and who seems to me resigned for the worst. I want to continue to be his friend and was looking about the net for the best way to do this. I think I am on track but it was very reassuring ( to me ) to read your suggestions for friends of stricken ones as to how to proceed.

    I see you as a very strong person, even in your diminished state, and I could wish I were even a fraction as brave. I do not know what your present condition is, but followed the responses from last year up until the present, so I presume ( and hope ) you are still fighting the good fight, and that you will prevail.

    Kind wishes from this unmet friend,

    Norm Farrell

  • cc says:

    Hi, Thanks for this.
    I have a darling friend who has cancer, and it has spread to her brain now, its hard to know what to say over the past 3 years and throughout each step and stage of her illness, its been hard to get the right balance. I have made mistakes, heaven knows it! Massive mistakes, but all through this I have tried to remain calm and not teary on the phone and listen and support, and then when off the phone, break down and cry like a baby. She doesnt need to hear me bawling my head off or any advice or ah well I am sure the next time the chemo will work talk, but its hard not to say maybe its time to quit this endless road of treatment that isnt working and is making you so ill. :-( All I can do is be there for her and hope beyond hope that something, anything will make her well and whole again, or that the end when it comes is quick and painless. The hardest thing not to do is think about my emotions and feelings, this isnt about me, its about her, and she doesnt need my emotinal state to deal with as well. So thank you for this blog entry, I needed it tonight xxx

  • Vicky says:

    What do I say and how can I be supportive to a friend who lives in another country, far, far away who has fought and won against breast cancer, but is currently waiting to be told if she has colon cancer?
    And if she does, how can I be helpful and what do I say to be helpful?
    Thank you,

  • Kay says:

    My husband has brain cancer, when I explain to people or my own children each of the things he is having problems with they think I am complaining about him. I get this comment all the time “Well, he can’t help it”, of course he can’t help it I know that. I just need to be able to explain things that are happening, because each day it’s different. After today I won’t say anything to anyone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

What's this?

You are currently reading What to say to someone with cancer/thoughts on how to be a friend to someone with a serious illness at Lisa Bonchek Adams.