What Not to Say to a Cancer Survivor

susie lindau boob report picture with plants in front of her boobs before double mastectomies breast cancer

I’m almost five years cancer-free and have survived all kinds of off-hand comments. Everyone wants to say the right thing to a cancer survivor, but sometimes not saying anything would have been better. Some were well-intentioned while others seemed like heat-seeking missiles. When that would happen, I would go to a very dark place. A place filled with fear. A place without hope. A place I called The Hole. Dread and worry would swallow me. Sometimes for days. All because of some stupid remark.

It seems silly and yet there were times when I felt as if a giant C for Cancer appeared on my shirt. Some people avoided the topic altogether. Some avoided me like I was contagious. Others only wanted to talk about it.

Here’s the delio. Most survivors are cancer-free after surgery with or without chemo and/or radiation. We want to keep it that way. It’s funny how people treated me like I still had the horrible disease.

I’m here to make it easy for you next time you to talk with someone either facing the challenge of battling cancer or thriving another day toward that super spectacular five-year mark. Mine is on June 1st!

Everyone is different. Some of these comments may not bother someone else. They sure bothered me!

6 things to avoid saying to someone who has survived cancer:

1. I had a mom, aunt, sister, uncle, cousin (or all of the above) who died of breast cancer.

Now granted, I’m almost five years out and can console the person who is probably still reeling from the loss of a loved one. I’ve lost a lot of loved ones in the last two years. It’s a terrible thing. But most first and second-year survivors are still pretty freaked out. We schedule blood tests every six months. We worry A LOT! We don’t want to hear about how fatal cancer is. We know all about that.

Everyone likes to relate in some way. BUT don’t open your entire “cancer file.” I’ll give you some suggestions in a minute.

2. You know that -blank- causes cancer.

I’ve been cornered at cocktail parties. Parties where I was having a great time and had finally stopped thinking about cancer for five minutes. Usually, there’s no preamble, just an “Oh, my God. I know what caused your cancer.”

Thing is, I used to beat myself up believing I did this to myself. Being angry doesn’t solve anything. Regret is the fastest and easiest way to waste precious time. MORE TIME IS WHAT ALL SURVIVORS WANT MOST. There’s no way I’ll ever know why I got cancer. I was super healthy, ate organic, and used green cleaning products.

Realize that cancer is not caused by stress. It is caused by a perfect storm of several different factors. AND everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. What one person can tolerate, another might not.

Several years ago, I discovered the link between alcohol and SEVEN different kinds of cancer including breast, so I stopped drinking alcohol.  Yes, wine is alcohol and definitely included.

When I bring this up with friends, I always preface it with, “Everyone has their own sensitivity. I stopped drinking alcohol and eating soy or anything else that would raise my estrogen level since that’s what my cancer ate. As soon as I made the change, I stopped worrying.” It’s true. It was so worth it!

3. I know someone who got cancer again right before her five-year check-up.

Really? How was I not going to be haunted by that? Was it a warning? There are no guarantees. Yeah, I get that. But I don’t know this survivor’s stage or her circumstances. Why freak me out like that?

EVERYONE’S CANCER HAS ITS OWN DNA. I hate to shout, but please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t compare one person’s cancer to another. EVER.

4. I want to introduce you to my friend who had cancer.

The last thing I wanted to do in my first year of surviving was awkwardly meet someone and make cancer the focus of our first conversation at a party. Again, I can totally handle it now. But it’s extremely personal. Everyone goes through cancer differently and on their own terms if that’s at all possible.

Instead, mention that your friend is at the party. If we are ready to talk about it, we’ll ask to be introduced. Problem solved!

Everyone has their own degrees of openness.

At first, I wanted people to acknowledge my diagnosis, but a minute or two was long enough. A year later, you couldn’t shut me up! Some survivors are extremely private and swear me to secrecy after our discussions. I get that.

The very worst comments hit me in two questions:

5. How do you know you won’t get breast cancer again?

“Because I don’t have any boobs,” I said and smiled thinking I had the guy.

6. Yes, but you could get it somewhere else.

My heart dropped into the basement of my gut. What a dick. Why would someone say that? I went so far down the hole, it worried me for years.

Now I take it as a challenge.

Yeah, dude, I’ll show you.

Being human can get us into trouble.

When I published my first Boob Report, my stats boomed. They continued to soar as I chronicled my journey.

I told my oncologist about it.

“You know that will change,” he said. “Your views will drop as soon as they realize you’re going to live.” His comment cracks me up every time I think about it.

Why is that? People didn’t really want me to die, did they?

Of course not… I hope.

Why people say what they say:

People love drama.

Like any good thriller, the higher the stakes, the more our muscles tense and our heartbeat quickens. I know. I write them. We love tension and challenge. We want to find out what happens.

Will the hero live or die?

In that first Boob Report, Roadblocks and U-turns, I announced my cancer diagnosis. Being a blogger rocked. I didn’t have to call anyone! Anyway, I equated my shock to Monty Python’s Flying Circus complete with the giant thumb and forefinger. Here I was on stage starring in my own life when that damn hand came from nowhere and flicked me into the cheap seats.

The opposite happened. I drew a lot of attention. I know it was sincere and full of concern. I appreciated it. People prayed for me. My tumor shrunk a little bit before the surgery. Amazing!

What we need to hear:

Rarely did anyone ever say to me, “You’re going to be fine.” How those five words would have restored me.

We don’t want to hear about your dead relatives, or what could have caused our cancer, or that it could come back. We may not want to be relegated to a corner of a room to talk about breast cancer at a cocktail party with someone we’ve never met.

Instead, ask how we’re doing. We totally appreciate that! Then move onto another topic. We’re still part of the living. Maybe we’ve been on vacation. I traveled to several countries in Europe six weeks after my double boobectomies. Maybe we’ve been hard at work on a project. I wrote a couple of books and over six hundred blog posts in five years. Ask about our families, our plans for the future.


Give a survivor hope. As they light up the room with their smile, The Hole will magically disappear. Writing that last line gave me shivers.

Are you private or do you like to share in hope of support when life goes south?

What not to say to a cancer survivor. Click for what to avoid and what all survivors want to hear!!! Breast cancer inspiration and awareness, health, life lessons, personal growth and motivation, positivity, self care #breastcancer #cancer #friendshipgoals #support #lifelessons

Click for more Boob Reports or more Wild Adventure, inspiration or travel.

Related posts:

Boob Report – Anxiety and the Fantastic Five-Year Finish Line

The Boob Report – The Dirty Little Secret about Alcohol

An Open Letter to My Boobs

An Open Letter From My Boobs


106 thoughts on “What Not to Say to a Cancer Survivor

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  1. So I do understand there are things not to be mentioned as if someone wants to share their personal information, they will. I try not to eat my feet, but if does happens. I don’t mean to cause any trouble of emotional triggers. But I have facial stretch marks from all the times I have put my foot in my own mouth. The biggest: I No! You didn’t say that! Was when I was being friendly, and cheerfully asked a Woman shopping near us, as I looked at her: Smiling I ask: “SO When are your Due?” My wife disappeared so fast, leaving me, and the stranger, the woman, she went ballistic and hostile to say the least of it. “I’m not pregnant! She screamed at me, as the entire store fell (pin drop) silent and wide eyed! All of a sudden a barrage of shoes and things came flying at me from her shopping cart and I was gone out of there.

    I was once going to ask a woman if those two flower pots were for sale.’ But I thought you know I better not ask her, and just went out and bought my own the next day.


    1. Hahahaha! Brock, I’ve been there too. It only takes one bad guess. I’m a yapper and have tasted my foot on several occasions. It’s the assumptions that get me.

      You crack me up!


  2. I tend to be private and share when it seems appropriate. I can say I have probably done most of these as well as be the cheerleader of hope. I have had the hope approach backfire on me though too. You ARE the Wild Rider and living your life to the fullest 🙂 Take Care (((((loveandhugs)))))


  3. Your timely posting against wrong conception regarding cancer survivors will surely help society to progress rightly.


  4. Thanks so much for writing this. My mom is coming up on her five year breast cancer mark, too 🙂 congrats to you. It’s an amazing feeling to feel on behalf of someone else, so I can’t even imagine how amazing it must feel for you.

    For other reasons, this hits home for me right now. One of my best friends was very unexpectedly (is it ever expected, though?) diagnosed with brain cancer a couple months ago. The part that probably made it more unexpected than the normal nature of cancer unexpectedness was the fact that she’s not only extremely healthy, but we’re only on our late-20s.

    We’ve all been nothing but positive and know without doubt we’re gonna beat this thing 🙂 so sorry that you encountered anything but positivity during the times when you needed it most. Congrats again on this amazing milestone!


    1. Congratulations to your mom! I have butterflies just thinking about it and with the anti-estrogen pill (I’ll soon be off) that is saying something! It sounds like you are handling friends and family with cancer really well. We need more of you in the world!

      No one can see into the future, so I don’t ever see the need to freak people out.

      Thanks for your wonderful comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I went through a stage where I mentioned not being dead by cancer every chance I could … because, a – I wasn’t dead by cancer and that was something to shout from the rooftops, and b – I got so sick and tired of people treating the entire thing as some sort of taboo subject that only ought to be talked about in hushed tones and certainly not in my presence.
    This was in the early days, probably around the once-a-month-bloodtest stage. I remember walking into the cancer center where I saw my oncologist and announced to the staff (and half the patients in the waiting-room, I’m sure) “Still not dead!” and got a rousing cheer! 😀


    1. Ha! I love it. I feel like shouting too!

      I told some friends that I was a week away from being five years cancer free and was totally cured since I was stage 1. One of them looked at me and said, “Really?” I had to explain the statistics. The appropriate response was congratulations.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. There is no set policy for any and all persons dealing with cancer in their lives. We have all been touched by it in some way. My Mom passed away from it when she was 42, mine was at 35, my older sister was in her 50s and at the 12 year mark she has just had a re occurrence. It was different for each one of us. Except for the label. Whenever someone asks me about it, the first thing I say is that each and every one of us is different and I can only tell you what happened to me. I noticed some comments above about positive things coming out of it. I can tell you that when I was doing my fight, I was healthier than I ever had been, really fit and it was one of the happiest times of my life. You know, except for that whole cancer thing. Isn’t that odd?


  7. I was dumbfounded that people can be so insensitive. Why anyone would say that kind of thing is beyond me. I would have thought it would be obvious not to drag someone who is battle cancer down by giving them all the negative thoughts and statistics!
    Congratulations on your five-year achievement on being cancer free. long may it continue! 🙂


  8. Great post, Susie. I agree with everything you said here. I can’t believe that guy, though. Maybe you should’ve punched him so he’d remember not to say anything like that again. Just a thought. 😉


  9. Yaaay! It is fantastic that you are free on cancer for five years. 😀

    This post is really great. My sister has been cancer free for a few years now, and it feels less scary each year. I am really good at saying the wrong thing or putting my foot squarely into my mouth, but blooming ‘eck all of these are so insensitive! It’s so sad that you had to deal with silly people as well as cancer!

    p.s. I love your blog for the adventures and outdoor posts. It was only recently that I even read that you survived cancer. So, some of your readers like you the way you are, alive and full of adventure! Cancer doesn’t define you for me even a little.


    1. Thank you so much for the kind note, Josy! You really made my day.

      I’ve had foot-in-mouth disease too! It’s hard to always say the right thing but like you said, these were over the top. They keep coming too!

      Soon your sister will celebrate her five year. I’m so glad it’s almost over! Five more days….

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Beautiful lady, I would say If I had seen you Thank goodness you are strong your strength of character shines from you. ( it is one of the first things I noticed when I met you.) Lets make a date to toast six years, if you get to the Bloggers bash next year we can clink our glasses in person. If neither of us can go we will do a messenger live clip to toast the six because it blows a raspberry in the face of the five. You got this. X


      1. Do you remembering meeting me? You, every bit a private detective, with your Bogart hat, casually holding up a voice recorder. Me, not knowing a soul and exhausted from walking two miles in heels from the train. No doubt talking ten to the dozen; as I do when tired or nervous.
        I spoke on your recording gadget … did you ever do anything with that? Well I digress … it is nice, knowing you more than virtually. Till next time *raises glass* ‘chin chin’ Susie June 2nd will be a good day. FB messenger me please.


        1. Yes!! I do remember and I have three more interviews to do before I upload it. I’ll definitely contact everyone when I do. I think people will enjoy everyone’s wild side!


  11. Duuuuude this was such a good post. I’m so happy for your five years of being cancer free! You’ve had so many amazing adventures and I’m glad that I’ve been able to get to know you and read all of them. You are an awesome lady, definitely a survivor! Sending you good vibes and some Cali sunshine 🙂


    1. Thanks so much for everything, Guat! You’ve supported me every step of the way. I’m so relieved to be on he other end of the journey. Woohoo! The celebration will start next Friday. Five more days!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. You’re amazing, Susie, in the whole way you’ve handled what you’ve been through. Traveling just six weeks after your surgery shows how strong you are. You’re so active, I often forget what you’ve been through. I’m super happy for you to celebrate your milestone tomorrow, June 1st! Doing a happy dance for you, knowing you won’t have to deal with those side effects anymore. Cheers to you, Susie, Wild Rider. Thank you for sharing your journey, which I bet helped other people in dealing with their own battles. I think your stats went up because people put their hope in you. Cheering for you! Whoop! Whoop!


  13. I think these days everyone knows someone close or not-so-close that has battled cancer. It doesn’t seem to be like 40 years’ ago when it seemed scarce.

    From what I’ve seen (and please correct me if I’m way out here), a positive mind plays a crucial role in the quality of life and survival.

    My philosophy in life: live each day as if it were your last and welcome each birthday. Don’t be scared of growing old as it’s a privilege these days.


    1. You’re totally correct in the role of thinking positively while facing any kind of adversity. We have to let ourselves absorb the setback then keep moving forward toward our hopes and dreams.
      Living to a ripe old IS a privilege!
      Thanks so much for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. This sounds hard to deal with! If I were treated that way, I’d absolutely DIE!!!! Thanks for the info I will definitely avoid asking these questions. P.S. I’m new here so please follow me!!!!


  15. Thx for writing. I found your blog because I actually searched for “hamburger buns” and “breast implants!”

    I’m in a bilateral mastectomy forum and the women keep on talking about hamburger buns. Now because of your blog I know what they mean!


    1. Ha! That’s so great. I hope you read my Open Letter to My Boobs and their reply. LOL! Here’s the link to the Boob Report category:
      I hope you’ll share them with your forum. Breast cancer can be so scary, but somehow I found the humor in my journey! I plan to publish it some day.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment! (((hugs)))


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