Nikhil Joshi, M.D.
Doctor, Author, Leader
Nikhil Joshi is a young physician, writer, and speaker. He is passionate about furthering his ability to touch the lives of people positively.

The Top 10 things you should NOT say to a person with cancer. Warning: Hilarious

The Top 10 things you should NOT say to a person with cancer. Warning: Hilarious

Hey you! You’re an awesome person. You’re reading this because someone you know is touched by cancer and you want to know how to avoid hackneyed phrases and suggestions which piss them off. As a person with cancer (Hodgkins Lymphoma) and an amateur asshole- I’m more than qualified to take you on a tour of stupid shit people say. Before we begin can I just say this was all made with a touch of humour, so please see it as such.

10) How are you feeling?

How am I feeling? I’ve got fucking cancer and I’m undertaking one or many of: radiotherapy/chemotherapy/experimental therapy- how the fuck do you think I feel?! Being on chemo is not like being on E!

Hahahaha just joking I actually like this question, I was just screwing with you.

But I think what you actually want to know is: how am I doing? What’s my outlook? If you are going to ask try: how the fuck are you? This signals to me that you are genuinely interested, you don’t just want the ‘positive’ spin on things, and that you know me as a person. If you are trying this for another person in your life, feel free to leave out the expletives.

9) Have you tried worshiping X deity?

Facepalm. Really? Now is the time you want to proclaim your faith to me? I write this as a person who believes in God (you can check out the first book Here)- keep your personal beliefs to your fucking self! Not the time for missionary work. If you ask this- be prepared for me to ask have you considered that you may be an asshole?

8) Have you tried Yoga/natural health products/getting rid of your cellphone to cure yourself?

Look- I love you and you’re trying to help- and that’s sweet. Really it is. And maybe it’s just me as a physician, but I’m on CHEMOTHERAPY. They didn’t just jerk off into a bag and tell people to put it intravenously! Whatever your particular gripes are with the pharmaceutical companies (and you do have a point) chemotherapy has been trialed on tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of patients. The effects have been studied in depth. I’m taking it because I believe in science, and unlike Yoga/kale/ being gluten free- it actually has been proven to cure my type of cancer. (Now before you get all up in arms- I practice Yoga everyday- I’m just saying it’s part of a holistic lifestyle, it’s not the cure for cancer)

7) Are you going to lose your hair?

Yes I’m going to lose my hair- and I’m going to look like a badass motherfucker. Thank you ‘Breaking Bad’!

6) Have you heard from (insert ex-lover or ex-friend here)

Sigh. Is this the best time to remind me that the love I cultivated for years, or the friend I cared deeply about has abandoned me in my time of need leaving me twisting in the wind? Fuck no. Do I really need you to piss on me right now? Again, fuck no. Partial marks are awarded if you follow this up with: Well fuck them!

5) How are your parents doing?

Oh Mom and Dad- they’re swell. They’re super pumped their son has cancer! Okay sorry- that was a bit dark! Hahaha- but, really what am I going to tell you other than they are doing the best they can?

4) We should go out for dinner/clubbing/take a trip

Yes old me would be eating at a wonderful restaurant and then dancing all night. But chemotherapy me can’t eat out because someone may cough on me and fucking kill me! And no I can’t go clubbing or take a trip with you- I’m sick! Think infection control- where can I take this person where there are a small number of people, none of them children, and for a short time that breaks up the monotony of their house/bed rest.

3) Think positive/read the Secret

Is thinking positive and cultivating a happy and balanced outlook important to people with cancer? Absolutely. Is telling me to think positive even the slightest bit helpful? Not fucking at all. Sure I’ll just pull myself up from my boot straps and think positive about my life threatening condition- that’ll make it all better! The funny thing is- yeah actually, a positive outlook and a sense of humour and surrender makes this whole thing so much better- but when you tell me to think positive it comes off as condescending and shitty. So just don’t do it. And don’t get me started on the fucking Secret. Their whole premise being you can have whatever you want as long as you visualize and believe it enough- and in general this is good and true! I’ve read the book and practice many of its techniques. But it does a disservice to people who have actually died from their conditions (whatever they may be) by supporting the premise that they weren’t healed because their faith wasn’t complete. Cough Bullshit cough

2) You can beat this- you’re strong.

Double facepalm. People don’t die of cancer because they’ve ‘lost the fight’. That’s an incredibly simplistic and shitty way of looking at it. People die of cancer  because their tumour burden is simply too high and sometimes chemotherapy is ineffective depending on the type of cancer. This has nothing to do with their will to live, or their personal character, or how much suffering they’ve experienced. I know you’re just trying to help, and that this whole thing is easier if you think it’s a battle or a fight, but it’s not that. To me, cancer’s a river. I’m floating down it with the people I love, learning and suffering and laughing. In the end I surrender to the mystery of life and trust the universe to do what’s best for me- whatever that may be.

1) You’ll be fine.

Le sigh. Are you a medical oncologist? Are you my hematologist? Are you just saying this because you want me to be fine but really know that no one, not even the above people, knows how the fuck this is all going to play out? I hope so. I hope you face up to the reality that I have- that no one knows or has control over what happens in the course of this illness. And if we want to be philosophical: no one knows or has ultimate control over any aspect of their life. Pretending everything is going to be fine is ridiculous and yes, condescending and shitty. You’re saying this because you don’t know what else to say, and you want/need me to be fine. But instead of glossing over the truth, why don’t we just stare at it together, cherish what we have today and hope for the best? That seems like a better plan than denial.

Hey! Now that this list is over- thanks for reading it. If you’ve said one of these phrases before- don’t sweat it- you’re at least one of the people who is trying to care about someone so that makes you pretty fucking great. Seriously- what else can we ask for except someone trying to reach out to us? I’m the last person to actually give people shit over awkward but well meaning phrases. There are so few people in the world who actually care and reach out, that I think we have to be grateful that someone actually gives a shit about how we’re doing. It’s one of the redeeming parts of this world- that friends and strangers can love someone and wish them well.

And now that I’ve decimated your usual conversation with someone with cancer, I’ll work on a list of things you CAN actually say. And keep in mind, everyone is different, so if you disagree with any of these sayings- that’s totally legit- I’m basically just in my sweat pants about to watch a billion hours of Netflix waiting for the next round of chemo and thought I’d write something.

Peace and Love


13 Responses to “The Top 10 things you should NOT say to a person with cancer. Warning: Hilarious”

  1. Donna Morton

    LOVE THIS and you!!

  2. Jackson

    Great post, Nikhil! Hilarious and informative.

  3. Jon

    Fantastic article. Heisenberg!

  4. Michele S

    You are awesome! This is an excellent piece of writing. Thank you. Your ‘floating down river’ analogy is perfect.
    I’m looking forward to your next list…and to your full recovery. 🙂

  5. Dc

    Nikhil; we are feeling every word of your time in life – real and raw and relatable as ever. Tell us everything.

  6. Heather Williams

    As a doctor who has treated people with cancer, I have tried to develop some strategies to help my patients through this terrible experience. One of the approaches we were taught in medical school is to find out what coping skills they have. Things like close family and friends, humour, a positive attitude. But does any of this actually help with their treatment? Does it make them feel better? Can I actually make a difference? Who knows. Like most things in medicine, it seems to ‘depend on the patient’.

    Right now I fall into the “close friends” category of a dear friend who is suffering from cancer. He is pretty sick in the intensive care unit, ventilated on a breathing machine, and it makes me nauseas to think that cancer did this to him. His partner also happens to be a very close friend and has been by his side the entire time. So what can I say – while living in a different province – to make things any better? I can’t change anything about his condition. I know that saying “things will be fine”, “he will pull through” are not the right things to say, but what else is there? I am definitely guilty of “try to keep a positive attitude”. Sorry guys, my bad.

    I think over the past several months I have come to the realization that while my intentions are good, the honest truth is that I can’t make the situation any better. My gut reaction is to do everything I can to take away the pain and suffering my friends are going through. However, the reality is that there is going to be pain and suffering regardless. Cancer puts your life on hold, consumes your thoughts, introduces the unknown into your future, and has grave consequences. Of course it’s going to suck.

    After many months of seeing my friends go through this, I have come to some realizations. I can only be beside them, “floating along the river”, as Nikhil so accurately phrased it. So, I have adopted the strategy of letting the people I care about know that I am here, thinking about them, and that they can call me any time if they need anything. Hopefully this has given them some support to keep going uphill through this rotten ordeal one day at a time.

    Nikhil and I went to medical school together, and although we have never been close friends, I have mad respect for this guy. He has never been afraid to say what he means and he stands up for what he believes in. So I guess I just wanted to say “hang in there” – it was not on the list of things not to say. Maybe “hang the fuck in there” is more appropriate. There are people out here thinking about you, rooting for you, cheering you on.

    Cancer sucks. That is all.

  7. Marina

    Absolutely hilarious! Now go eat some kale and cure that cancer 😉

  8. joanie white (H0LLY'S mom )

    How about: I wish you well on your journey? I also enjoyed the above blog. cheers,Joanie

  9. Sean Burke

    wtf does “Werbsite” ask for? I’m old and clueless. Cool blog bro! Check out “The Chive” long as you’re stuck in the house and the ‘rents are on your ass to “be good” and stuff. On the Chive site I really like “animals that don’t suck, “Cat Saturday”, and “Future Lower Back Problems’ (what can I say, I’m a perv). Keep Calm and Chive On. Also: there’s an old Latin phrase that I can spell worth a damn (never studied Latin) but it translates as “don’t let the bastard grind you down. Shit happens (inside joke).

  10. Chelsa

    Hello Nikhil,

    I went to high school the same time as you which now seems like an eternity ago (you might not even remember me…random I know!). I heard your interview on CBC radio and checked out your blog. Even though we don’t know each other I just wanted to say how nice and refreshing it was to here your interview and read your blog posts. It felt like for once someone was plain old “saying it like it is” and coming from a realistic, down to earth yet still a very positive point of view. I think it means even more coming from a young Doctor like yourself. I have spent time in the Health Science with sick and dying family members and although I think every one who works in the Health Care system do an amazing job with what they can, it is so nice to hear a doctor like yourself discuss talking to someone just human to human with compassion rather than at them or above them. You write very well, its humorous,meaningful and educational all in one blog post! When your practicing again I think you will make a fantastic doctor. Speedy recovery 🙂



  11. Leah

    Thank you for saying what everyone needs to hear. I’m 44, Stage 4, Cancer of the Esophageal Junction, currently on chemo. Cancer sucks. Keep writing!

  12. Joan

    I appreciate your “no shit” attitude. I was diagnosed with basal cell skin cancer under my eye four years ago. I had to undergo 20 radiation treatments, each consisted of having to have a lead shield put over my eyeball to protect it from the radiation. I have gone through follow up surgeries each year since for reconstruction of the tear duct and the skin under the eye (I am thankful for a health care system that enables me to have these choices). Until recently, I used to feel like I had a less serious form of cancer than say, breast cancer or Hodgkin’s lymphoma, because I never had to have chemotherapy treatments (even though I realized having cancer on my face at the age of 51 was a pretty serious thing) and that is not to say that I didn’t feel like crap while going through radiation and after, because I most certainly did. I used to feel so guilty when people would ask how I was doing because all I had to do during that time of treatment was to rearrange my work schedule, I had medical, sick and vacation benefits that I used when I felt tired and didn’t suffer financially. I didn’t lose my hair but my face was a mess as the layers of skin reacted to the radiation treatments. I thought I looked like someone with a contagious disease. One comment I got alot was “you poor thing, you’ve been through so much”. I didn’t know what to say to that statement because in my view, people who go through sickening chemo or who have other kinds of cancers or terminal illnessess go through alot. Did I go through alot? I don’t think so; but you know what, I did have cancer. I’m still dealing with some side effects and maybe that is alot…some days.

  13. Terry

    One comment that sticks with me after telling them I have cancer.

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