Don’ts and Do’s of Dealing with a Cancer Patient

Now that I am finally returning to some sort of normal, now that the cancer is gone (and hopefully won’t return), I thought I would offer a little advice to those of you out there who know someone with cancer. It can be awkward, and you may not know what to do or what to say to the cancer patient. So I compiled this very short list of don’ts and do’s from the patient’s perspective.

1. DON’T tell them to think positively, that it will better their chances of survival. Why? Well, for starters, it’s just not true (See this American Psychological Association Report). And I know you don’t realize this, but you are effectively placing the blame on the cancer patient: “If you die, it’s because you didn’t have a positive attitude.” You don’t really see THAT perspective until YOU’RE the cancer patient. Being told to be positive can be frustrating and annoying, and definitely adds stress to an already stressful situation (I’m not the only patient who feels this way).

DO be supportive. Cancer has incredible psychological effects. I can’t even express what it does to you. It eats away at you literally and figuratively. Sometimes the cancer patient just needs a friend to be there. Check up on them, even if they say they are fine. Offer help with tasks you think they might not be able to do. The cancer patient might not come to you when they need help because they might not want to be a burden.

2. DON’T try to “cure” the patient. I was about to scream from the numerous emails and advice I received on so-called cancer cures. Following some of that advice would have been deadly. I don’t understand how people can believe everything they read. You may be well intentioned, but you are not helping the patient by bombarding them with unsubstantiated claims. This is LIFE and DEATH folks. Anecdotes just won’t do.

A couple of seriously bad offenders:
Johns Hopkins Cancer Update email hoax

This one is so dangerous that Johns Hopkins Cancer Center published a rebuttal:
Johns Hopkins Cancer Center Rebuttal to the above Cancer Update email

and then there’s the ol’ baking soda “cure:”
Baking Soda Cancer Cure

This is a nice list of cancer myths.

DO let them know about any current SCIENTIFICALLY SUBSTANTIATED studies you think they might like- but be careful here. Not all patients will want this information, so be very sure before you offer it.

3. DON’T try to offer treatment advice. Every cancer is different and treatments are tailored to the patient depending on many different factors. This is a very difficult, individual decision made between a patient and his or her doctor.

DO be supportive with the patient’s treatment decisions-even if you don’t agree with them. That’s a hard one, especially if the decision is no treatment.

4. DON’T assume the patient is all better once the treatments are finished. This is when we need you the most. During treatment we have the support of the doctors and nurses, but once treatment stops, we suddenly find we are very alone. The greatest chance that the cancer will come back is within the first two years, and even after the first two years there is a chance it will come back or we’ll get another type of cancer. This is all we think about. This has been my most difficult time.

DO just be there. That’s all we really want.

©2010 frayedges and


21 responses to “Don’ts and Do’s of Dealing with a Cancer Patient

  • wordsfromawoman

    Excellent post and i agree with everything you said. The people who had wonder cures drove me crazy. Again, as you said somewhere, I couldn’t complain about expensive, painful treatments and worries about my future if I ignored these wonder cures.

    To me, what also was and continues to be hard to understand was the realization that many medical staff prefer to ignore or downplay a patient’s depression.

    Another Don’t is NOT to tell a cancer sufferer about all the cancer troubles of your aunt Janie and other people s/he has never met.

  • buttercup600

    Wow, it is always hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, this is so wonderful that you have written this to make others realize what it is all about!! I am so happy that it has gone…your spirit shines through so brightly and I am sending you loads of love. Thanks for posting this my friend xxxx

  • carole McCune

    Good Stuff, especially the links!

    I was assisting with a cancer support group last year and remember that about half the attendees were caregivers or close family members. They had serious symptoms of anxiety, grief, depression, hopelessness, a loss of words or fear of sayiing the wrong thing, exhaustion, etc. I hope you can expand your advise to them in their anguish and especially on communication issues.

    At one time, I came across a paper that described the effect of mental illness on all the different people involved, even the doctor or psychiatrist. It was extremely informative and really helped to give greater understanding to the person and the disease. The same is true with cancer. It touches so many.

    Just before you started treatment, my stepson finished his for stage 4 prostate cancer. He continues to be cancer free, but I know it always on his mind. And, he re-established his connection with God. But he works non-stop, volunteering for all the overtime and on-call he can get. He wants to take care of finances so his family will be okay if he doesn’t make it. At the same time he volunteers to help elderly folks at his church, That is, I believe, the healthies thing he can do. He feels good as he makes a difference.

    This blog and your other writing must give you a sense of invigoration as well as satisfaction. Getting the above compliments are very good medicine. Fresh, new, helpful activities are life-giving. The bible says “You will know them by their works” and “The will have everlasting life”. Keep doing your good works! I am proud of you.

    • frayedges

      You’re welcome to pass this on to anyone you think might find it useful. I can relate to your stepson- an hour doesn’t go by that I don’t think about cancer. My writing, though, has been so therapeutic.

  • fraziernmyra

    It really got to me, I know you are still thinking of the cancer coming back and so do I, I have been trying not to talk too much about it, hope I am doing a good work, love you

  • Jamie Dedes

    This is good, sensible stuff. I appreciate your putting it out there. Blessings…

  • deadpoet88

    Thank you for putting this up. Was very useful. 🙂

  • Artswebshow

    This is something i would do well to remember.
    The concept that at some point in my life i wont come face to face with cancer either myself or with someone close to me is wishful thinking.
    Thanks for sharing

  • bluebee

    This is the most incredibly useful collection of advice – I find the ‘power of positive thinking’ movement particularly galling because it puts a lot of pressure on an ill person who would sometimes rather just be allowed to be as distressed as they want, without having to carry the burden of the expectations of others. And as you say, there is no scientific basis for the “advice” in the first place.

    It would be wonderful if you could expand on your experiences and advice in the style you write and publish it. The cancer support organizations could definitely make use of it and so could everyone who has someone in their lives with cancer.

    Thanks for taking the time to give your advice.


    • frayedges

      Thanks for the positive feedback. I have sent a manuscript that chronicles my cancer off to a magazine. I hadn’t thought of going to cancer organizations with my writing. I will look into that.

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