The top 10 things you should NOT say to a person with cancer

by Nikhil Joshi

Simon Kneebone cartoon for article:

The truth is, you say these things because you don't know what else to say, and you want/need me to be fine.


©deniskomarov / Adobe Stock

Funny adjective 1. causing laughter or amusement; humorous. 2. difficult to explain or understand; strange or odd.

Hey you! You’re an awesome person. You’re reading this because someone you know is touched by cancer and you want to know funny things you should not say to a person with cancer, and how to avoid those hackneyed phrases and suggestions which piss them off. As a person with cancer (Hodgkins Lymphoma) and an amateur asshole – I’m more than qualified to take you on a tour of stupid shit people say. Here are my suggestions on the 10 funny things you should not say to a person with cancer.

Before we begin can I just say this was all made with a touch of humor, so please see it as such.

10 funny things you should not say to a person with cancer

10) How are you?

How am I? How am I feeling? I’ve got fucking cancer and I’m undertaking one or many of radiotherapy/chemotherapy/experimental therapy – how the fuck do you think I feel?! Being on chemo is not like being on E! Hahahaha just joking I actually like this question, I was just screwing with you.

But I think what you actually want to know is: how am I doing? What’s my outlook? If you are going to ask try: how the fuck are you? This signals to me that you are genuinely interested, you don’t just want the ‘positive’ spin on things, and that you know me as a person. If you are trying this for another person in your life, feel free to leave out the expletives.

9) Have you tried worshiping X deity?

Facepalm. Really? Now is the time you want to proclaim your faith to me? I write this as a person who believes in God (you can check out the first book Here)- keep your personal beliefs to your fucking self! Not the time for missionary work. If you ask this- be prepared for me to ask have you considered that you may be an asshole?

8) Have you tried Yoga/natural health products/getting rid of your cell phone to cure yourself?

Look- I love you and you’re trying to help- and that’s sweet. Really it is. And maybe it’s just me as a physician, but I’m on CHEMOTHERAPY. They didn’t just jerk off into a bag and tell people to put it intravenously! Whatever your particular gripes are with the pharmaceutical companies (and you do have a point) chemotherapy has been trialed on tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of patients.

The effects have been studied in depth. I’m taking it because I believe in science, and unlike Yoga/kale/ being gluten free- it actually has been proven to cure my type of cancer. (Now before you get all up in arms- I practice Yoga every day- I’m just saying it’s part of a holistic lifestyle, it’s not the cure for cancer). Yoga isn’t for everyone.

 7) Are you going to lose your hair?

Cancer fucking cancer. Yes, I’m going to lose my hair– and I’m going to look like a badass motherfucker. Thank you ‘Breaking Bad’!

6) Have you heard from (insert ex-lover or ex-friend here)

Sigh. Is this the best time to remind me that the love I cultivated for years, or the friend I cared deeply about has abandoned me in my time of need leaving me twisting in the wind? Fuck no. Do I really need you to piss on me right now? Again, fuck no. Partial marks are awarded if you follow this up with: Well fuck them!

5) How are your parents doing?

Oh, Mom and Dad- they’re swell. They’re super pumped their son has cancer! Okay sorry- that was a bit dark! Hahaha- but, really what am I going to tell you other than they are doing the best they can?

4) We should go out for dinner/clubbing/take a trip

Yes old me would be eating at a wonderful restaurant and then dancing all night. But chemotherapy me can’t eat out because someone may cough on me and fucking kill me! And no I can’t go clubbing or take a trip with you- I’m sick! Think infection control- where can I take this person where there are a small number of people, none of them children, and for a short time that breaks up the monotony of their house/bed rest.

3) Think positive/read the Secret

Is thinking positive and cultivating a happy and balanced outlook important to people with cancer? Absolutely. Is telling me to think positive even the slightest bit helpful? Not fucking at all. Sure I’ll just pull myself up by my bootstraps and think positive about my life-threatening condition- that’ll make it all better! The funny thing is- yeah actually, a positive outlook and a sense of humor and surrender makes this whole thing so much better- but when you tell me to think positive it comes off as condescending and shitty. So just don’t do it.

And don’t get me started on the fucking Secret. Their whole premise is you can have whatever you want as long as you visualize and believe it enough- and in general, this is good and true! I’ve read the book and practice many of its techniques. But it does a disservice to people who have actually died from their conditions (whatever they may be) by supporting the premise that they weren’t healed because their faith wasn’t complete. Cough Bullshit cough.

2) You can beat this- you’re strong.

Double facepalm. People don’t die of cancer because they’ve ‘lost the fight’. That’s an incredibly simplistic and shitty way of looking at it. People die of cancer because their tumor burden is simply too high and sometimes chemotherapy is ineffective depending on the type of cancer. This has nothing to do with their will to live, or their personal character, or how much suffering they’ve experienced.

I know you’re just trying to help, and that this whole thing is easier if you think it’s a battle or a fight, but it’s not that. To me, cancer’s a river. I’m floating down it with the people I love, learning and suffering and laughing. In the end, I surrender to the mystery of life and trust the universe to do what’s best for me- whatever that may be.

1) You’ll be fine.

Le sigh. Are you a medical oncologist? Or my hematologist? Are you just saying this because you want me to be fine but really know that no one, not even the above people, knows how the fuck this is all going to play out? I hope so. I hope you face up to the reality that I have- that no one knows or has control over what happens in the course of this illness. And if we want to be philosophical: no one knows or has ultimate control over any aspect of their life. Pretending everything is going to be fine is ridiculous and yes, condescending and shitty. You’re saying this because you don’t know what else to say, and you want/need me to be fine. But instead of glossing over the truth, why don’t we just stare at it together, cherish what we have today and hope for the best? That seems like a better plan than denial.

Hey! Now that this list is over- thanks for reading it. If you’ve said one of these phrases before- don’t sweat it- you’re at least one of the people who is trying to care about someone so that makes you pretty fucking great. Seriously- what else can we ask for except someone trying to reach out to us? I’m the last person to actually give people shit over awkward but well-meaning phrases.

There are so few people in the world who actually care and reach out, that I think we have to be grateful that someone actually gives a shit about how we’re doing. It’s one of the redeeming parts of this world- that friends and strangers can love someone and wish them well. And now that I’ve decimated your usual conversation with someone with cancer, I’ll work on a list of things you can actually say. And keep in mind, everyone is different, so if you disagree with any of these sayings – that’s totally legit – I’m basically just in my sweatpants about to watch a billion hours of Netflix waiting for the next round of chemo and thought I’d write something.

Peace and Love, Nikhil

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This article “Funny things you should not say to a person with cancer” originally appeared on  and  is republished with the kind permission of Nikhil

Article by Nikhil Joshi

Nikhil Joshi is a young physician, writer, and speaker. He is passionate about furthering his ability to touch the lives of people positively.



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