A young woman shared with friends and family that her mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She became frustrated when many of them told her “At least your mom got a good cancer.” While it is true that thyroid cancer has a very high survival rate, the young woman wondered, “How can any cancer be good?” In the months ahead, the young woman watched helplessly as her vital and energetic mom wrestled with fatigue and required afternoon naps. How was this good?

I understand how this young woman feels. When my 24-year old daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer many people, including a member of the clergy, told me, “If you have to get cancer this is a good one to get.”  I was reeling from the shock and fear that my daughter had cancer and I could not understand how these insensitive comments were supposed to comfort or help.

In my case the comments did not stop there. For some reason quite a few people made a point of calling me to share that they knew other young women who had thyroid cancer and they were doing great. Well, my daughter wasn’t. Not only did she require surgery but radioactive iodine treatment to kill any remaining cancer cells. It would be months before she was well enough to return to work.

If you know anyone that has a cancer diagnosis, no matter the survival rate or expected outcome, please do not refer to any cancer as a good cancer. So what can you say or do when someone you care about or their loved one is diagnosed with cancer?

  • Friends and loved ones appreciate empathy. Communicate, “I’m sorry you have to go through this” or “I’m sorry to hear this.”
  • If someone tells you about a cancer or diagnosis with which you are unfamiliar you can say, “I don’t know anything about this form of cancer and the diagnosis. Can you explain it to me?”
  • Validate their feelings. If they express fear you can say, “I can understand where you are coming from.”
  • The most important thing you can do is listen. Allow them to cry, vent, or articulate their fears. That’s what friends do.

Please keep in mind that any cancer, no matter how curable, is life altering.

photo credit: People of New Zealand via photopin (license)

Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now at a reduced price for e-books for "Illness & Death," "Suicide," "Miscarriage," "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle Store.

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Comment by Claretha Rice on October 4, 2015 at 12:49pm

I thank you for your post. It is very reassuring to hear that someone else knows it is important what to say and what not to say. My parents were 89 and 97, and I heard things like "well, they lived to a good age, or they are Christians, you know where they are, or  they did not suffer long", like it mattered to me. They are my parents and I miss them very much. That they lost their first born son with lung cancer, took them down a road that a younger couple finds hard, so they did suffer, because they lost a child, and this is not how the order of death should be. Thank you again for your thoughts on this topic.

Comment by T.C. Goodwin on September 28, 2015 at 12:39pm

Thanks for your post and vital info..... My sister had a tumor in her throat and turn out to be benign but it was still hard for her and my family (stressful indeed).....I am not sure if I will feel comfortable about saying I understand how you feel but maybe " This must be hard for you." Sometime its hard to even say that. Thanks for this timely info. I look forward to the time when " No one will say I'm sick" Isaiah 33:24

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