Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer

TNTS3DYou’ve just received the worst possible news – someone you love is diagnosed with cancer. Before you have a chance to do anything, you’ll need to say something. The usual clichés spring to mind, but surely there’s something better to say than, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Just what do you say to someone who has cancer?


Author Jo Hilder draws on her experience as a cancer survivor, advocate and support group facilitator to introduce new ways to talk about cancer, and to the people we love who are diagnosed with it. With warmth and humor, Jo gently eases family, friends and supporters into those inevitable interactions faced after a cancer diagnosis, exploring the most common practical, social and emotional challenges. Identifying, addressing and dispelling the common cancer clichés, Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer introduces simple and comfortable methods for turning awkward interactions into open conversations about cancer. Sharing from her own journey as a cancer patient and wide experience delivering cancer support programs, Jo helps readers understand the reality of cancer and treatment, contrasting this with common stereotypes and cancer myths. Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer is a practical guide for the uninitiated, providing information and support for anyone who finds themselves bewildered and afraid in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

People say…

“This is a real life, practical, heartfelt and truthful guide for anyone affected by cancer. It makes you laugh, cry, reflect and wince when you read what you will probably relate to should you have been in this environment. This book has the potential to assist so many especially carers, families and friends who are always looking for ways to help a loved one or colleague deal with cancer, its treatment and beyond. There are plenty of resources for information, this deals with the “how the heck am I going to deal with this” on a day to day level. Brilliant stuff Jo Hilder.” Annie Miller, Coordinator, Living Well After Cancer Program, Cancer Council NSW.

“This book has helped me to see cancer from the eyes of those who have to deal with this disease, helping me realize my “normal” way of thinking just doesn’t cut it. Things Not To Say shows me if I truly want to support and love a friend or family member through this season of their life, I need to change. Jo’s book is uplifting and encouraging, and I’m so grateful she took the time to put these ideas on paper – thank you.” Sallie-Ann Macklin, author and photographer, ”Inspirational Women – Ordinary Women doing the Extra-ordinary”.

“If it were an ideology, it would be terrorism. Cancer catches us unawares, unprepared, without mercy or prejudice, forever altering the lives it touches. Jo Hilder has tackled a very difficult subject in Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer – the very essence of our first contact with cancer. In acknowledging those first emotions and reactions and naming our fears, she sensitively constructs a platform for what is inevitably a long arduous journey for all involved. Having been through that experience personally, I feel Things Not To Say To Someone With Cancer is a great place for anyone to start.” Brad Fitzpatrick, husband of Christine (passed away from cancer, 1997)

“In Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer, Jo Hilder provides a friendly, well-written guide for things to say instead of the usual clichés. Things Not To Say is a great book for cancer patients, cancer survivors, carers, friends, colleagues, neighbors and health professionals.” Carol Rhodes, cancer survivor and program facilitator, Living Well After Cancer.

 “This book is for anyone who has heard themselves say to a person with cancer ‘Let me know if there is anything I can do for you’ or ‘Just be strong’, and that’s probably all of us. Beyond the expected list of do’s and don’ts for supporting someone with cancer, Jo offers a way to open up conversations, leading us to a deeper and more authentic way of relating around a cancer diagnosis. Jo suggests there is a better way to face cancer with our loved ones.” Carolyn Grenville, cancer carer and advocate.

“Jo tackles a tough issue with compassion, humor and sensitivity, challenging existing approaches to talking about cancer by shining a light on a new way to communicate around a cancer diagnosis. Things Not To Say also acknowledges the good intentions underpinning those things we know we shouldn’t say to someone with cancer, but seem to stumble into anyway.  This warm and thoughtful book is much more than a guide of what not to do, and contains much food for thought on new ways to address the issue of cancer and its impact on the ones we love.” Kelly Williams.

 “Positive and wise, this book goes well beyond what’s promised. Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer doesn’t just tell us what not to say, but leads us along a path to a far more positive and comprehensive way of approaching loved ones with cancer. Far from just being a list, Things Not To Say encourages us to leap forward into a better way, and to trust ourselves to relax into a more natural way of being with someone who has cancer.” Carrie Green, cancer carer.

Practicalities first – presentation, size of pages and print, spacing between lines, layout of paragraphs and the ”smiley face ” that popped up here and there  made the book easy and enjoyable to read. Many home truths about our relationships with family and others for me as a  cancer journeyman and my wife as a cancer carer came to light. Your life experiences are clearly helpful to those of us who have only just started our cancer journey and hopefully a reliable guide for those cancer friends and carers who sometimes act with every good intention but at times  show lack of full thought as they desire to help. I enjoyed it all so much, so thank you for writing and preparing this guide for our onward travel through life after cancer.” Ron Woodlands, cancer journeyman.

Those who purchased this book also bought Soul Letters For The Cancer Sojourner.

Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer

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

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

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This comes from the idea that adversity breeds resilience. Often and ideally it can do just that. However, what doesn’t kill you can still frighten you witless. Being told you have cancer and may not see the year out, let alone never your children grow to adulthood, is a soul-withering concept, often accompanied with a varying range of intense emotions which may last days, weeks and even months. Being told that if you don’t die, at least you may end up having a more highly evolved character is not particularly comforting. Being told there is a chemotherapy that will get rid of your cancer is.

My friend/cousin/uncle/neighbour had that, and they died. A clear example of how the truth doesn’t always set you free.

Just pray, and God will heal you. Sometimes people recover from cancer, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, people pray and cancer goes away, sometimes nobody prays and cancer goes away. Instead of the above, tell them sincerely “I will pray for you”, then go away and actually do it.

You must have unconfessed sin in your life/family lineage/household. This statement serves no purpose whatsoever, as condemnation has always failed in facilitating repentance anyway. The precursor for cancer is possession of a human body in a messed up world. If you believe and plan to say the above statement, be prepared to back it up with Scripture. Because you can’t, and you and I both know it, I am already primed to come to your house and punch you in the mouth if you actually go ahead.

God is trying to teach you something through this. When I was little, my mother taught me to avoid touching the hot stove by holding my hand on the heat until I screamed in pain and had to be hospitalised for months. Not really. My mum loves me. She found other ways to teach me which wouldn’t leave me permanently disfigured and hate her forever.

You don’t need chemotherapy, you just need faith. David was assured by God he would be valiant over Goliath, but he still used a rock and a sling. And he finished the job with Goliaths own sword. If you have issue with “worldly” medicine, I say fight fire with fire: after all, disease is not a condition that occurs in heaven.

I would love to come around and see you. What you probably mean is “I would love to come around and look at you. I would like you to see my sad face, and my “coffin eyes”. I would like you to hear all the things God/my neighbour/the internet has told me about your disease and how to become better.” The last thing someone who has cancer wants to be is an exhibit. Don’t get a committee together from the church for a drop-in and expect to be welcomed. We had to put a sign on our door to stop people just wandering into our home uninvited to “see” me. Having cancer does not cancel out a person’s dignity or right to privacy.

I have a book for you. Please do not take your book, especially if it is about special cancer curing food, juice or vitamin supplements. Most cancer patients have a television, a phone, a car, the internet, and access to every store that you do. Offer to get them anything they would like that they can’t seem to be able to get for themselves. If they want to know about the Praise Jesus Diet or some Guatemalan beetle juice, then they will call you and ask you to get it for them.

I can make a lasagne. Anything but lasagne. They have probably had as much pasta bake as they can eat brought by well-meaning friends and relatives. Be creative, call first with the offer, and actually follow through. And please don’t expect them to remember that you sent it in Aunty Betty’s special wedding present casserole dish. Stress does funny things to the memory. They will be hard pressed thanking you, let alone getting your heirloom back to your house.

Tell me everything. I knew people understood what I was really going through when they didn’t ask me to tell them.. After being prodded, poked and punctured, and having my bodily dysfunctions discussed in minute detail the last thing I wanted to converse about was cancer. I wanted someone to look into my face and really see me, the person inside the body. Now some people like to talk about their disease, treatment and operations with great animation and detail: they may be enemy focussed, and if this helps them, well, great. I find that most people with cancer will enjoy an opportunity to talk about the outside world, the place where living occurs: normal life. Indulge them, not your own morbid fascinations.

Well, we all have to die from something. If you had walked among the dying, you would never speak of death so lightly.

I lived with a man who in his last weeks of life was dealing with the fact he caused his own lung cancer and would soon be leaving his teenage son behind. I also lived with a couple who had saved up all their working lives so they could travel, only to have the husband diagnosed with brain cancer two months after retiring. I met countless young women who lost the breasts they nurtured their children at, and the partners they conceived them with, because of what cancer brought into their world. I know a woman who died of mouth cancer who I am sure would rather have died of anything else. In the end, her face was eaten away, and she was unable to eat or kiss her husband, who remained faithfully at her side until she died. Six months later, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Yes, everyone must die sometime, of something. The fortunate ones are blessed with the time and the opportunity to ask themselves the following three questions: Is this my time to die? If not, am I able to do what is required to survive? If this is my time, am I prepared? If you are in a position to be beside someone who is faced with these questions, pray for wisdom to help them find their answers, and for the strength to walk beside them through their valley of the shadow. And remember, whenever you are with them, it really is all about them.

10 thoughts on “Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer

  1. Have just come across your writing, Jo, and I am loving it. Thank you for being honest about yourself and your struggles as a parent and a christian. A breath of fresh air in the idealistic blog world!
    Thank you for this list too. I nursed my mother through her terminal cancer (her birthday would be today). So true, so true….
    xx Simo

    1. Thanks so much Simone for reading my articles. I’m so sorry about your mum, what a sad day today must be for you.
      My thoughts are with you,
      Jo 🙂

  2. Hi Jo

    here via mamamia. Love (if that’s the right word) this post. I have a chronic progressive illness, rather than cancer, but I can say I’ve pretty much heard all of those in one version or another. I’m so sorry you’ve had them too. I love how many turn around to blame you for your illness, eg the sin and not praying enough ones. Who in their right mind thinks that’s helpful? Drives me batty. I have found writing about it helps me to process a lot of it and my blog has turned into therapy of a sort. I just wish people would stop and think before they speak sometimes. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    1. Hey Rusty, thanks for coming by the blog. You’d know better than most I wager exactly how difficult this is. You need people around you but end up wishing they would all p— off and leave you alone! Keep writing…I know it’s helped me so much. I’m writing a book about it all know, hopefully to try and help people think more deeply about their beliefs and about what it means to be sick in our society. So many people don’t know what to say, but I think it helps to know what NOT to say just as much.
      Thanks again, and all the best.
      Love Jo 🙂

  3. Jo

    I follow you on twitter

    I like your style and spunk

    I have a young friend who is probably dying of cancer

    Your words helped guide me to not say stupid stuff

You've heard my thoughts, now throw me yours...