Cancer Etiquette

Is there really such a thing as “cancer etiquette?” The answer is a booming “Yes!”

I have been asked frequently about what not to say to someone going through a cancer battle, and have decided to finally take the plunge and address the issue publicly. Fact is, although cancer is becoming more and more prevalent in our world, most people still don’t understand how to properly talk with someone facing this diagnosis. Do you say “You’ll be fine,” “That sucks,” or “How much longer do you have?” No. Yet, while there are many things you should avoid talking about with a cancer patient, there are also phrases that can be beneficial. Everyone handles a cancer diagnosis differently. Family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and the patient themselves will have emotions greatly differing from one another. Though you may feel right in your feelings, always be mindful, respectful, and considerate for the one on the front lines in the fight for survival.

Disclaimer: While reading these, you might think, “Oh crap! I’ve said that!” but please don’t feel bad. We are all humans and make mistakes. I know that it’s not your intention to offend or hurt me (or fellow cancer warriors) when you say certain things. And personally, I don’t keep a tally when I hear something that rubs me the wrong way. Frankly, my brain is pretty liquified from all the chemo I’ve ingested, and I might not even remember your name, let alone something you might have said months ago! In addition, please hear my sarcasm in some of these tips. I’m not intending to be mean, but only trying to add a little twist of humor. And last but not least, please note that not all of the below “do’s and dont’s” may properly apply to everyone with a cancer diagnosis. When in doubt, use your sense. Before word-vomiting on the person, stop and think first. And, when all else fails, treat them as you would like to be treated…Unless you like pity. Ain’t nobody got time for that. 

  1. Don’t offer to help unless you really mean it. Sometimes when you see someone close to you get the news that they have cancer, you think that by offering help, we (the patient) will automatically feel better. Think first. Do you really intend to step out on a limb, interrupt your own schedule, and put yourself aside to lend us a hand? If you are willing to help, by all means, tell us. If not, don’t even bring it up. We won’t be offended. If you would like to help in certain areas (providing meals, running errands, financial support) let us know. Being more specific will benefit everyone involved. And don’t expect us to let you know when we need something. Being sick and asking for help is tiring.
  2. Is that a bad kind? Believe it or not, many people unknowingly ask this question. Unless you don’t know what cancer is, you can assume that all kinds of this disease are bad. Yes, there are diagnoses that have greater survival rates, while others have lower success, but the truth remains: cancer sucks no matter what the diagnosis or prognosis.
  3.  You’ll be fine. Do you know this for certain? If not, please don’t throw this into this mix. It will only leave us feeling guilty for being sad. Truth is, no one knows how our story will end…except God. And last time I checked, that wasn’t your name.
  4. Don’t ignore us because we now have cancer. I promise, it’s not contagious. Ignoring us will make us feel diseased and isolated from all you healthy folks.
  5. Know-It-All. Yes, there are numerous sources for information in our world today. But just because you have spent hours on the internet researching cancer does not mean you can now put an “MD” in front of your name. Unless you have gone through the same process as us, you don’t know what it’s like. When you uninvitingly share your vast knowledge, there’s a high likelihood we will feel more scared and alone.
  6. Death Sentence. “Oh wow! My grandmother/uncle/sister died from cancer.” This is not helpful in any way, shape, or form.
  7. I can imagine. Really? You must have a very creative imagination. Fact is, no, you can’t imagine what this is like. Have you ingested poison day after day in hopes that it won’t only kill the good cells but also the bad? Have you laid under laser beams that shoot fire into your body? Didn’t think so. Also, pneumonia/pregnancy/migraines are not even slightly comparable to cancer.
  8. Don’t put pressure on us to change doctors or therapy. You may have good-intentions and you may actually be right, but suggesting that we switch doctors or treatment may cause us anxiety. Be mindful of how you offer input, and try not to push it on us. It’s our body and our decision. What worked for your friend may not work for us.
  9. That sucks. Yes, we know it sucks. Please spare us the reminder.
  10. How much longer do you have? Although you may be very curious about our life expectancy, we may not have the answer. And unless we offer this information willingly, assume that it’s a private subject. After all, how much longer do YOU have?
  11. I don’t know how you do it! This statement is laughable. Sometimes, we don’t know how we do it, either. But when it comes down to it and you have to choose between life and death, I bet you would put your shit-kicker boots on and choose life as well.

Now that you know what NOT to say to us cancer patients… are you worried you have nothing left in your arsenal? While there are the obvious no-no’s, you still have options when conversing with us. Believe it or not, there are things you can say and do that are highly beneficial. And sometimes, it’s not always about offering your words, but rather, offering listening ears.

  1. Reach out. While you’ve learned that ignoring us can be harmful, reaching out can do just the opposite. Sometimes we feel forgotten after a few months and years into our journey. Most people forget and move on with their own lives, leaving us feeling stuck and alone. Simply sending a text message, email, or phone call can change our day drastically.
  2. Give us a pat on the back. It may sound weird, but most of us appreciate physical touch. A hug, handshake, or pat on the back shows us that you are concerned. No, ass-grabbing will not be received well.
  3. Listening ears and strong shoulders. When asking us how we are doing, expect a long answer. Sometimes we might just respond with “I’m fine.” But other times, our responses may be long-winded. There are moments where words of wisdom are not necessary. Sometimes we just want to vent or cry or both. Offer to sit patiently and listen.
  4. Encouragement! You like encouragement don’t you? We are no different, besides being bald, weak, and sick. Most likely we are feeling the worst we ever have in our lives. We could be sad, depressed, anxious, and upset. Though you may not see the emotions from the outside, an inner turmoil might be brewing. Simply sharing that you are excited for us to be a cancer survivor, that we still look so beautiful/handsome, and that you know we are strong enough to get through this will lift our spirits. Our physical bodies may be weak, so offering strength and encouragement can inspire us tremendously.
  5. Ask  about treatment with no agenda. Be prepared for scientific terms that you may not be aware of, extensive explanations, and confusing answers. Remember, you don’t have to respond. Sometimes we want to share what we are going through, because more than likely, treatment is at the forefront of our lives.
  6. If you don’t know what to say, tell us. We understand, sometimes we don’t even know what to say about our current circumstance. Coming up with a counterfeit response will be noticed. Be authentic, sometimes words aren’t necessary.
  7. Ask if you can pray for us. While some people may politely say “No thank you,” some of us appreciate and value a prayer…or two, or five, or one hundred.
  8. Admiration. We are trying our hardest to hold on and keep fighting. It’s hard. Reminding us that we are brave, strong, and/or courageous (even though we may feel like none of the above) can help.
  9. I’m sorry. This has potential to be slightly controversial. Sure we can say, “What are you sorry for? It’s not your fault.” But equally, I believe we all know that offering this statement is a generic condolence. Most of us will appreciate your concern.
  10. You’re an inspiration. If we have inspired you or someone you know, please share that with us over and over again. Sometimes we feel like our battle means nothing, and simply knowing that our sufferings are helping others in similar circumstances fills our spirit with gratitude. To know that we are making a difference through our journey to help others through theirs is a blessing.
  11. Sharing is caring. This compliments the previous point. If we have done something that has impacted your life for the better, tell us. If you have shared our story and offered hope to a fellow cancer patient, let us know. Not only will it inspire our fellow peers, but it inspires and motivates us to keep up the fight.
  12. Boring and mundane topics are valuable, too. While, there are many times we do appreciate sharing about treatment, struggles, and the journey, we would also like you to remember that we are living life just like you. In most cases, we still go to the grocery store, travel, cook, and clean our homes. Asking us about daily life outside of our diagnosis helps us all remember we are more than a walking science experiment. Ask us what what our favorite foods are… unless we’re sick from chemo. But you get the idea.

1 Thessalonians 5:13-18 (MSG Version)

“Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on. Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out. Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.”

7 Comments on Cancer Etiquette

  1. Christina Cassidy-Bortz
    April 23, 2013 at 2:15 PM (11 years ago)


    We have never had the opportunity to meet, one day; I hope our Lord allows an intersection. I am always delighted and anxious to read your blog when it appears in my “Inbox”. If I have 10 emails waiting, yours is the first I read. You inspire, inform, and challenge me; you have restored my hope and bring about a deeper apprecation for health and life. You so graciously allow us into your world and the opportunity to fight on your behalf through a simple prayer, “Lord, please touch Stephanie’s body and heal her.” You, my dear, are as lovely as they come. Thank you for sharing your story so beautifully!


  2. Ryan Lloyd Sorrells
    April 23, 2013 at 5:46 PM (11 years ago)

    Hey Stephanie,

    I just wanted to say that you are truly an inspiration to me and not only that but you have shown me that you can truly beat anything that life throws at you. I myself have been having ongoing health issues and some days I don’t even feel like I am able to get out of bed. Then I remember that there are a lot of people such as you going through much worse than what I am experiencing because I see the world through God’s eyes and I read every single one of your blog posts. I am so proud to call you a friend and if ever I was to have a sister you would be one to look up to daily. Hang in there and keep fighting this thing called cancer. God bless you.

    your friend for life,

    Ryan Lloyd Sorrells

    P.S. My gift in this life is music so I wanted to share that part of me with you. For the past five months I have been recording cover songs for bands using you tube on my own channel; I hope you like them. It is just my way of saying that I may be poor financially but I am rich in spirit and I want to give that freely. May that give you more reason to fight and keep writing, may it help keep you sane because I know what it is like to feel out of control and may you always able to hold on to God, to others close to you and to lean on him. I love you sister of Christ.

  3. Lisa
    April 23, 2013 at 6:52 PM (11 years ago)

    What a great piece!! I’m a friend of Amanda (Kekich) Missildine and she shared this today on Facebook. As a medical provider, cancer survivor, and watching my mom go through chemo, I still love to read others’ wisdom and thoughts on how to be more caring. (or less-offensive in this case too!) I’m looking forward to sharing this with my mom, Carol, as I know she’ll want to lift you up in prayer and offer up her sufferings for others going through the same thing. Way to rock cancer with your attitude and kind heart. It’s people like you who change the world!

  4. Melita
    April 23, 2013 at 9:33 PM (11 years ago)

    Love this. My sister in Uganda is going through a tough time with her cancer so I will pass this on to her. I am sure she will share it with others. I have used your blogs to encourage her and she enjoys reading them. Again,thank you for sharing your story. You have no idea how many lives you have touched.

  5. Devra
    April 24, 2013 at 12:48 PM (11 years ago)

    Thank you for tackling his topic! You write so beautifully and insightfully. I have often wondered what the right thing was to say to someone fighting cancer or another illness, and now I know.

    We continue to pray for you often. Meredith and Lincoln still remind us all the time. :-) love you cousin!

  6. Becca G.
    April 24, 2013 at 7:03 PM (11 years ago)

    Thank you so much for this! I work in a hospital and have had patients just flat out tell me when they’re terminal and it kind of leaves me dumbfounded. I switched from saying, “I’m sorry” because I received so many uncomfortable “It’s not your fault” to “That sucks,” followed by the encouraging. Now I will drop the, “That sucks” and go straight to the encouraging. Then I always tell them that I have been praying for my patients, past, present and future for the past five years, so I’ve been praying for them and will continue to pray for them. You’ll be added into that category as well. Thanks for sharing this. It’s very helpful!

    Hang in there! You got this! :o)

  7. Sarah
    August 14, 2013 at 12:56 PM (11 years ago)

    Thank you so much for writing this article. There are ton’s of “What not to say to a cancer patient” articles, but as a cancer patient supporter, I struggle with what TO say to a cancer patient. Two of my loved ones are battling cancer and sometimes I feel awkward just saying “good morning” because I know most certainly that when a person has a chemo apt. at 8:00 AM it is most certainly NOT a “good morning”.
    Or “I love you, have a great day!”, knowing the person I love has been throwing up half the night. I know surely I’ve said some well meaning things that have come across wrong or irritatingly. Hopefully my loved ones see that although I can not possibly understand what they are going through, I love them and regardless of whatever comes out of my mouth, my intentions are heartfelt.


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