5 Things to Avoid Saying to Skin Cancer Patients
Last updated: October 2022
Skin cancer comes in several forms and so do the responses to diagnoses. If you are a skin cancer patient or if you know someone who has been diagnosed with melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, or squamous cell carcinoma, you may have heard any one of the following remarks. If you have, chances are pretty good you have been somewhat offended or even left in awe in the wake of similar comments made by those who have not experienced the effects of living with a skin cancer diagnosis.
I’ve learned a few things about how to respond to friends since my melanoma diagnosis in 2007 and multiple Mohs procedures for basal cell carcinoma. I would like to give you a brief list of things you should never say to a person of any age with skin cancer. In addition, there are some helpful responses you can use in the event you are on the receiving end of one of the following remarks.
Skin cancer IS cancer
1. “At least it’s not real cancer, right?” -- Ugh. You may want to say, “Are you kidding me?” Don’t do it. Rein it in. I know it will be hard to control the impulse, but a little more diplomatic approach is in order.
Response: “Actually, it is cancer and can be as serious as any other type if it’s not caught early. There are several types of chemotherapy given to skin cancer patients including one that is applied directly to the skin. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone."
Skin cancer is not color blind
2. “Oh, wow. You must have had a lot of sunburns as a kid, huh?” -- This one is not far off from the truth as sunburns are a huge contributor to the development of skin cancers.
Response: “Sunburns are definitely a factor for some people, but many skin cancer patients have skin that tans easily and never burns with sun exposure. We should all be vigilant and practice sun safety."
Moles aren't the only culprit
3. “Do you have a lot of moles?” -- This is a bit of a personal one, isn’t it? However, you can handle it.
Response: “Moles are only one area of concern. It’s kind of amazing the number of melanomas and other skin cancers that don’t look like everyone’s idea of the dark menacing mole. Regular skin checks are really important so a dermatologist can pinpoint and map even slight irregularities in your skin.”
Recurrence is common
4. “You had it removed, didn’t you? That’s great. So all is good!” -- This is a tough one because people need to understand that having one skin cancer removed does not clear you for life.
Response: “Yes, this one is gone and the margins are clear. I am set up for regular checks with a dermatologist because my chances are actually now greater for developing additional ones. It’s not a one-and-done deal; I will have to be proactive with skin checks of my own each month at home. You should do the same. It’s easy. I can give you some guidelines for skin checks if you like."
We do not need to become hermits
5. “I bet you miss being out in the sun, don’t you?” -- Insert a big sigh here. This one takes some explaining.
Response: “Sun safety is important for all of us even if you’ve never had a skin cancer diagnosis. I still go out; I’m just much more careful now. We all should really avoid peak hours and sunscreen is a huge must every day."
Breaking the myths
If you are faced with a loved one or friend explaining a recent skin cancer diagnosis, you will absolutely have questions. That’s to be expected. Ask questions, but be aware of the above. A little research goes a long way, and a willing ear can open your eyes to many aspects of skin cancer. Listen. They will talk.
Hopefully, you won’t be one of those who hears these comments. If and when you are, however, you can handle it. Be patient and, above all, use the opportunity to educate. They will thank you for it!
Do you sunscreen in the fall?