Common Platitudes Can Be Hurtful to People With Cancer


“Everything happens for a reason,” is among some of the unhelpful things you can say to someone with cancer.

cartoon image of blogger and lymphoma survivor, Karen Cohn

Recently, I read an article about phrases everyone uses that are kind of gaslight-y in feel, which are, generally, intended to be helpful and supportive, but often make the recipient feel worse instead of better. I’ve heard several of them since my diagnosis with follicular lymphoma, and they are, to put it mildly, not helpful, even though people think that they are. Or maybe they’re just so common that people don’t realize how dismissive some of them are.

The first one is “everything happens for a reason.” I know there are people who think this is true, but really, many things are pretty random. Cancer is oftentimes the result of a random mutation. While many types may be influenced by lifestyle, many others aren’t. I heard this phrase a lot when I was first diagnosed; it’s been four years, and I still haven’t found a reason why I have cancer and people around me don’t.

The next one is “Just be positive!” That’s easy to say, but difficult to do, and puts additional stress on the recipient. It comes up so often that research has actually been done into whether a positive attitude makes a difference in the outcome of medical treatments, and it doesn’t. For people who are already depressed, saying things like this can make things worse; it definitely did for me. I heard plenty of variations on this one — mostly along the lines of “it could be worse,” because follicular lymphoma (a form of blood cancer) is considered highly treatable, but chronic and incurable, and the initial treatment isn’t nearly as debilitating as some other forms of cancer treatment. Sure, it could be worse, but it could also be a lot better.

This feeds right into the next one: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This one is simply false. My immune system is damaged from treatment, and the effects are probably permanent. That doesn’t even touch the psychological impact of having cancer and knowing that it’s likely to recur at some point, or that treatment, while successful, makes me more prone to develop certain other types of cancer. I know, for myself, that I am not “stronger” in any way I can think of, and certainly not in the way that this phrase is meant.

Another phrase that people say to anyone who is sick is “Everything is going to be OK.” This one can be pretty misleading. I mean, what is “OK” anyway? Cancer turned my life upside-down, and while I’m healthy now, there’s no guarantee it will stay that way. There was also no guarantee that the treatment my oncologist chose was going to be effective; even he wasn’t sure, which I found out after I was done the therapy and he told me that he hadn’t expected it to work so well. I know he meant it to be positive, but it was pretty disturbing at the time.

“Have an attitude of gratitude” goes along with several of the others. What, exactly, am I supposed to be grateful for? That it wasn’t worse? That there are treatments, even if there’s not a cure? That it didn’t kill me? And to whom am I supposed to be grateful?

The other side of the gratefulness coin is “Anger is never the answer.” Sometimes, anger is the answer — or at least letting anger out is an answer at the time. I was very angry when I was diagnosed, with a heaping helping of “why me???” and I still get angry sometimes when I think about it. When that happens, I must do something with my anger, or it festers. That doesn’t mean taking my anger out on others, but there are days it leads to effective weeding.

When you’re diagnosed with cancer or any other illness, or have a significant accident, the people who care for you want to be supportive, and many of them will fall back on platitudes such as these, with the best of intentions.

In the short term, some of these ideas may make you feel better. But I found that in the long term, it invalidates feelings, because everyone around you is telling you why it’s not OK to feel the way you feel. At the end, the article suggested that people who hear such clichéd terms should tell the speaker that what they’re saying doesn’t help, but that can be hard; I know when I told my friends that, they simply moved on to a different but similar statement. All I can really suggest is that when someone tells you how they feel, validate their feelings and then ask if the person wants solutions, because a lot of the time, all the person wants is to vent. I know there are times when that’s all I want, and I really appreciate the people who let me vent without trying to fix things for me.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.

Related Videos
Image of Dana Frost.
Beth Blakey speaking in an interview with CURE
Cancer survivor, Frank J. Peter, playing an original song on the piano