The right words can soothe; the wrong ones can sting. Survivors reveal what they found more hurtful than helpful.

By Liz Welch
Updated December 21, 2007
Laura Doss

Don’t Say, “But You Don’t Look Sick!”

This well-meaning “compliment” irks many cancer patients because, they feel, it shows a lack of understanding of what they are going through. “I didn’t feel sick until I started doing chemo,” says Beth Weinblatt, who was only 29 when she was diagnosed with a fast-growing form of stage 2 breast cancer (she underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy). “The cure makes you feel sick, not the disease itself.”

Don’t Avoid Her

For Angela Agbasi, who was pregnant when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, the worst thing anyone could do was ignore her: “Some people disappeared from my life when they heard I had cancer,” says Agbasi, who underwent a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy. “I think it scared them and they didn’t know what to say. That hurt.” It’s better to pick up the phone and admit you’re flummoxed. A simple “I don’t know what to say, but I’m thinking about you” is all that is necessary.

Don’t Blurt Out Horror Stories

Laura Livingston Rubin, who underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, still shudders when she thinks of the time one person, upon learning that she had breast cancer, launched into a story of how her cousin had skin cancer, then chemotherapy, which led to leukemia and, eventually, death: “Just what you want to hear when you’re about to start chemo, right?”

Don’t Use War Metaphors

Some women talk about “fighting” the disease, but others chafe at words like fight and battle when describing breast cancer treatment―particularly if the disease has returned. It can make her feel like the recurrence is somehow her fault, as if she didn’t fight hard enough. Listen for cues in the way your friend talks. If she mentions “attacking the disease on all fronts,” then feel free. Your best bet, no matter what, is simply to ask, “How are you doing?”

Don’t Say Things Like “You’ll Be OK”

While you may be trying to be upbeat, Lizanne Kelley, who was treated for breast cancer with a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, says this only makes her feel worse: “People don’t know what it’s like to face cancer daily. The depression and the anxiety can be overwhelming.”