Stay Positive: What Not To Say To Someone With Cancer


Supporting A Loved One With Cancer: What Not To Say


Cancer is the leading cause of the total burden of disease and injury in Australia. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 124,910 Australians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year alone. Numbers like this mean that it’s rare not to know someone – perhaps even a close friend or family member –who’s been affected by cancer. Cancer is still a scary word, but with continued medical advances and higher survival rates it doesn’t necessarily evoke the same level of fear that it did 20 years ago. But with all the progress is there too much pressure on people diagnosed with cancer to be positive or even grateful to be alive?

As human beings we are inherently uncomfortable with the idea of our own mortality. When a serious illness strikes someone close to us, we often cope by ‘staying positive’, ‘thinking positively’ and encouraging the sick person to do the same. The ‘power of positivity’ seems to be a cultural phenomenon . Think of how often news stories, TV shows, and movies portray surviving cancer as an existential experience with many life-changing positive outcomes.

Although well-meaning, pressing ideas of ‘positivity’ onto your loved one, telling them they should be ‘thankful to be alive’, or labelling them as a ‘survivor’, can have unintended effects. In the eyes of someone who has just undergone months, possibly years, of gruelling and frightening treatments, these ideas may not accurately sum up what they have been through. Furthermore, although surviving cancer means being disease-free, it does not mean that they are free of the physical and emotional effects of their disease and treatment, which can often linger.

This is not to say that positives cannot come from the cancer experience. I have spoken to many people who feel that cancer gave them the opportunity to stop, take stock, and think deeply about what’s important to them. But, it goes without saying that everyone copes differently, and sometimes realisations about the meaning of life can take time to process.

If you have a friend or family member who has survived cancer, listen, acknowledge the bad stuff, and wait for them to process and find meaning in their experience in their own time.

Brittany McGill is a clinical psychologist registrar who completed her postgraduate clinical training at the University of New South Wales. She is interested in anxiety and mood disorders across the lifespan and uses cognitive-behavioural and other evidence-based strategies to help people achieve positive change in their lives


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