Good Luck: To Say or Not to Say, That is the Question

As I am packing up my things after my  infusion, the infusion nurse, who knows that I usually go to another location for my treatment, sends me off with a quick goodbye and “good luck.” 

I immediately respond with, “Thanks” But in my gut, I feel something different. What does she mean by that? Was she doubtful that I would make it through my next treatment or wishing me the utmost success? Is having cancer about good luck or bad luck? What does it really mean to wish someone “good luck”? 

Wishing someone “good luck” might be seen as a relatively harmless phrase and judging by its overuse, it is clear that many do not think too deeply about it. Its meanings are simple: it is used to say that one hopes someone will succeed. In an informal (more sarcastic) way, it is used to say that one thinks what someone is trying to do is difficult or impossible. I have often heard someone jokingly say, “Good luck with that!” meaning, you don’t have a chance.

I am confident the infusion nurse’s intention was to imply that she hopes I will succeed. But my underlying apprehension is the fact that what I heard is that trying to live with metastatic breast cancer is difficult, if not impossible! 

Cancer’s difficulty is all too true. What gives me pause is the fact that when one says, “Good luck,” there’s an assumption that cancer care is an unpredictable phenomenon that may lead to a favorable outcome. And that much of my treatment’s success is truly beyond my control. Is this what I want to hear as I pack up my things after having been here for four hours? Do I really need to be reminded of this difficult truth as I leave my forty-seventh infusion, only to return in three weeks? 

If we take a cue (pardon the pun) from the theatre world, they have abandoned the phrase altogether. Based on a deep superstition that there are mischief-making spirits in the theatre who use their magic to force the opposite of what is wished to happen, theatre folks never say, “good luck” to an actor or stage manager. They always say, “Break a leg.” 

It would have been a lot funnier if my infusion nurse sent me off with “Break a leg.” But I cannot imagine that would translate well with other patients. 

So here are some alternatives to saying “good luck” (Thanks to Sam Holstein for the idea for alternatives): 

  • Be Well. The positive implication is that total wellness is within us and that we simply need to just be
  • Take Care. Another positive affirmation that shifts ownership to the person and assumes they have the potential to care for themselves in ways that work for them.
  • I’m Rooting for You/Wishing You the Best. Both of these phrases show the person’s empathy for the situation and recognize how everyone needs encouragement. These phrases also imply that the patient is not alone on their journey but rather they are surrounded by people who have their best interest at heart.
  • Holding You in the Light. The Quaker in me holds the Light for you. On one level, this phrase says, “I am holding you in the eternal radiant Light of Spirit/God which I hope will shine for you as you continue with your care.”

These phrases are for anyone, not just cancer patients. Try them on. See if shifting your language away from relying on luck or chance makes a difference in your life, or the lives of others.

7 responses to “Good Luck: To Say or Not to Say, That is the Question”

  1. You make a wonderful point. Sometimes peoples just dont know what to say.


  2. I have guven up saying “good luck” since I have been sick.


  3. Thank you for sharing your feelings about the phrase, as well as options that might feel better to hear and be less loaded to use when wishing others well. I have felt like the the phrase “good luck” has changed in its connotation since it is often used in the sarcastic context you mention, and so, indeed, it may not be heard in the positive light the speaker intends to convey. Bringing awareness to the expressions we often use without much thought is an important first step toward helping ourselves replace them with alternatives that invoke feelings in the recipient much more consistent with our loving intentions.


  4. Beautiful – it’s you shining through. Vaya con Dios – is one that I hold dear. Go with Spirit and know my heart is with you.


  5. Thank you for this, for unpacking a phrase that has pretty much become meaningless, just a filler. Thank you more for suggesting the alternatives.


  6. Jane McVeigh Schultz Avatar
    Jane McVeigh Schultz

    I carry you in my heart, Jenny. Every day. Love. Jane


  7. Courtney MacArthur Beaulieu Avatar
    Courtney MacArthur Beaulieu

    I too have thought about this phrase, and honestly, it was in the same context. When we would pack up our belongings after leaving my daughter’s infusion treatments, nurses would send us on our way with those words. “Good luck!” I came to hate that…did we need luck? We had a medical plan in place, we had it firmly in place… was luck part of that plan? Maybe…but I didn’t really want to know that. I think ‘be well’ is my favorite.
    PS- She just reached 3 years since diagnosis (Nov. 8) and she’s strong and healthy! I will say I do feel very lucky! Be well!



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