It’s hard to know how to react when we find out someone has cancer. There’s no doubt that the word “cancer” conjures up some strong feelings, so we have a tendency to speak emotionally, often without first thinking it through. However, there are some phrases and sentiments that you’ll want to avoid using when you find out someone has cancer.

“At Least You Don’t Have Cancer of the _____”

It may be true that some forms of cancer are more dismal than others, but any cancer diagnosis is a tragedy for that person and those around them. Don’t try to minimize the significance of their illness by saying “At least you don’t have pancreatic cancer because that form of cancer is more severe,” or something of that nature.

“How Long Do You Have to Live?”

Even if the diagnosis is fatal, it’s never appropriate to ask about the mortality rate or timeframe. If the person is close to you and feels like divulging that information, they will tell you in their own time.

“My Uncle Had Cancer”

Everyone’s experience with cancer is different. It’s not fair to try and compare the person’s diagnosis to someone else that you know because it might be completely different. Bringing up someone else’s experience with cancer is irrelevant and takes the focus off of the topic at hand, which is the person you’re talking to.

“You Can Beat This”

I understand that this phrase is used out of a desire to be optimistic and upbeat in the face of such a grave prognosis. However, you have to be careful with this phrase because it implies that the person’s fate is in their control. That if they are tough enough and have the right attitude they can overcome cancer. For some people, this is encouraging, but more often than not it can result in feelings of failure if their disease takes a turn for the worse.

Everyone who has been diagnosed with cancer feels differently about it. Likely the person is going to be very sensitive about the subject, so it’s important to choose your words carefully to avoid hurting their feelings or saying something offensive. Try to avoid these phrases and sentiments, and when it comes down to it, just show your compassion. Be empathetic towards their condition and think about what you would want someone to say or not say to you if you were in that position.