Monday, April 18, 2016

What Not To Say To A Prostate Cancer Patient

In an online prostate cancer support group in which I've become active recently, a new member asked a sensitive question that, after having been asked, seems so obvious. Yet so few people think to ask it. If a friend or loved one has prostate cancer, what are the right and wrong things to say to him? What does a prostate cancer patient want to hear, and what does he hate to hear?

The answers differ from person to person, I suppose. But there was amazing uniformity in the responses of the group. Many have responded in the first three hours since the post, and the discussion is ongoing. It's an important question, and I'm very glad that it was asked in that forum. The answers are illuminating.

Before I begin, I have to say that participating in this forum has been a wonderful experience for me. The knowledge gained from the experience of so many is invaluable. I've made new friends there already, in just a few weeks. They've welcomed me, along with many others, with open arms.

My intention is not to tell people what they should or shouldn't do or say. I assume that you care about your friend or loved one who has this disease, and only want to help and encourage them. Some things, however well intentioned, do not help. But there are many encouraging and helpful things you can say. I'll talk about both.

I'll start with what not to say.

By far, the #1 answer in the group was the exact topic I wrote about recently in The Easy Cancer... Not! Which is, don't say that at least it's an "easy" or "slow growing" or "easy to treat" cancer. Don't say that it's "just" prostate cancer, like it's no big deal. It's a huge deal. You think it's easy? You try it.

Another version of this comment is that it's the best kind of cancer to have! Unbelievably, people actually say that. There is no good kind of cancer to have.

You'll also hear that you're more likely to die of something else first. At 60 years old, that's not true for me, unless I get hit by a bus or something. Even at 80, if it's caught late and found to be aggressive, doctors will want to treat it.

Part of the problem is that everyone seems to know someone who had prostate cancer and has recovered. Some are lucky enough to recover fully, with minimal or negligible side effects. But many others live with serious, long term side effects from surgery, radiation, and/or chemo for the rest of their lives, and a large percentage have a recurrence at some point. That's the reality.

If you've had prostate cancer, don't assume that your friend's cancer is in the same category as yours was, and since you beat it, they will too. Likewise if this was the case with your uncle or someone else you know. Every guy I've talked to personally who's been there has seemed to have that attitude. But I have yet to meet a man personally whose cancer was discovered at as late a stage as mine was. They want to encourage me, so they say, "I'm still here, you will be too." Not necessarily.

If you and the cancer patient are both religious, (or even worse, if you are and the patient isn't) don't imply, let alone say straight out, that your friend will be healed if they only have enough faith. That's an insult. No one can measure another person's faith, and everyone dies eventually.

It's not helpful to say, "If there's anything I can do, let me know." We know you want to help, and it's very much appreciated, but we're not going to ask you to pay our bills or come and cook for us. Instead, ask how you can help. Ask if there's something specific that's needed. If you know of a need, volunteer to meet that need if you can. That's very helpful, encouraging, and shows how much you care.

And above all, for me at least, never invalidate a cancer patient's feelings. If his outlook is negative that day, just love on him. Don't try to cheer him up by telling him he'll beat this. He might not feel like beating it that day. The fact that he's down may bother you, but don't make it worse by making him feel like he's wrong to feel the way he does.

Don't tell him to keep fighting. Sometimes the fight goes right out of us. 

In general, cheerleading is not appreciated. Empathy is much better.

On the positive side, the consensus answer is to just be there. Be present, not absent. What hurts more than a misguided comment is neglect. Neglect, to your friend with cancer, means you don't really care. You probably won't lose your friend over an insensitive comment, but you may lose him if you fail to reach out. This has happened in my circle.

There are many helpful things you can say. I have heard these things over and over, from many people. I love you. I'm praying for you. Tell me how I can help. I'm here if you want to talk. You're safe with me. Precious words. None of us can hear them enough, especially if you have cancer.

If you have things you normally do with your loved one with cancer, keep doing those things. Give them some normalcy in their suddenly upside down world. And if you haven't connected like you should have before the diagnosis, after it is an excellent time to start. This very thing has made a huge difference for me. Long neglected connections are now alive and thriving. It's a wonderful thing.

Many men with prostate cancer keep the news very private. If you've been included in a small group of people who know, take that as a special responsibility. I went public, and as a result, have support from many places. But you might be one of the few people who is in a position to help someone close to you. Don't shirk that responsibility because you feel uncomfortable or don't know what to say. I've made that mistake myself, and now I realize how wrong I was.

One gentleman in the group said that since his surgery, no one asks how he is doing. People assume you're all done, and they can forget about it. But we never forget. Even if we're pronounced cancer free, we still get tested every three months for the rest of our lives. And every time, we fear that number will rise. We're never truly free of it.

As a Christian, I love being prayed for, but being prayed with is much better. I treasure the times when close friends in Christ prayed with me over the phone, in person, or via FaceTime. I've received greeting cards with written prayers for me. If you've been in a position like this, you know how that feels. It's incredible.

We've all been in situations where someone we love is going through a difficult time, and we don't know what to say or how to help. I've been there many times, and have said and done the wrong thing more often than not, I fear. I've also been guilty of neglect. So this is not judgment or complaint. We know that your heart is in the right place. Most of you, anyway.

And if you care enough to ask, like this newcomer did, and care enough to read this post, like you are, it must mean that you really want to help. I hope this post helps you know how, at least a little.

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity. (Proverbs 17:17)


  1. Well said, as always, Mark. I've stopped telling people I have prostate cancer. Especially the "prostate" part, because I'm tired of hearing people minimize it by calling it the easy cancer. While the comment is usually meant to be supportive, it isn't. Your post is spot on and should be required reading for anyone supporting a loved one with cancer.

    1. Thanks very much, Robert. You honor me.

  2. Great post Mark! I don't say it enough, but I do love you very much my friend!!!