“You Will Never Go Broke Underestimating the Intelligence of the American Public:” Things People Say To Those With Cancer

P.T. Barnum had a cynical take on the degree of stupidity manifested by average Americans–but when it comes to what they say to those suffering from cancer, he wasn’t far off the mark.

I’ve been treating cancer patients in my practice for over 25 years, and have had time to hear what sent them ’round the bend, and to put together a small collection of some sayings my clients never want to hear again. Feel free to add on–I’m sure I’m forgetting some.


Unhelpful Things to Say To a Person With A Cancer Diagnosis 

  • It’s all going to work out just fine, you’ll see.
  • Jeesh–is that one of the bad kinds of cancer? [This was one patient’s personal favorite. She loved to respond, “The worst. The absolute worst.”]
  • Oh–you have the good kind of cancer.
  • Oh, no. My friend’s father had that treatment and they think it’s the treatment that killed him, not the cancer.
  • Look at all the people who have survived cancer. Hey–look at Lance Armstrong alone. [I have a handful of patients who are almost ready to murder dear Lance for his recovery and comeback. It has made their lives miserable.]
  • Oh, G-d. My mother died of that. [“You will never go broke. . .”]
  • You are so brave–I could never do what you’re doing.
  • I know exactly how you feel. [Doesn’t even bear commenting on. It’s too awful.]
  • Don’t worry. Stress makes it worse. Just try to relax. [How helpful. Why didn’t I think of that?]
  • My Uncle Joe’s made it 3 years. He’s a real fighter. [As opposed to me, thought my client–I’m a real surrenderer.]
  • Man, life is so unfair.
  • It’s all about attitude–if you just stay positive. . . [then I won’t think of why I want to kill you.]
  • God only tests people He loves.
  • The treatments are horrible, but at least you’ll take off that weight we’ve both been fighting. [This one was priceless–I’ve kept it in mind for years. Ironically, that client is still alive and well and in remission, years later–heavier than ever.]
  • You look so good! I’d never be able to tell you had cancer.
  • Wow! You lost weight!
  • Oh, how horrible! How will Jeff survive without you? [Seriously??]

The “You Really Need To” subset (a new class of annoying):

  • You really need to see Dr. X . . .
  • You really need to try a macrobiotic diet. . .
  • You really need to try Healing Touch. . .
  • You really need to find a support group. . .
  • You really need a second opinion. . .
  • You really need a workup at the Mayo Clinic. . .
  • You really need to read this book about. . .

For real–these are the things people see fit to say–when faced with someone with a cancer diagnosis.

For real–you will never go broke underestimating the intelligence of some people–when they are faced with someone with a cancer diagnosis. A point for P.T. Barnum’s side.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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