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"Empathy Cards" Say The Brutally Honest Things Sick People Want To Hear

“When someone you love gets sick, it’s really natural to get scared and uncomfortable and not know what to say,” designer Emily McDowell wrote.

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At the age of 24, Los Angeles–based designer Emily McDowell found out she had stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

But after nine months of chemo and radiation, McDowell wrote on her blog that the hardest part of the process wasn't what most people expect.

The most difficult part of my illness wasn't losing my hair, or being erroneously called "sir" by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo. It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn't know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.


So McDowell, who is now 38 and cancer-free, decided to design cards that said the things she wanted to hear when she was going through her sickness. She calls them Empathy Cards.

Emily McDowell

This card's description reads: "'Fuck cancer.' Who can disagree with that? Not me. Seriously, fuck cancer. I could hashtag it all day long. I really appreciate visibility and fundraisers and running for the cure. But I also know that hashtags and fundraisers and 'fuck cancer' don't help all that much with the loneliness and isolation that can come with having cancer.

Things that DO help: Friends and family who lovingly, unconditionally show up for the hard stuff."

McDowell wrote she's wanted to do the project for "a long time" and hopes the cards "help people connect with each other through truth, and to help people with illness feel seen and understood."

Emily McDowell

The description for this one says: "When your friend has cancer, they're still them. This card helps you be supportive in a loving and funny and real way, just like your friendship is. (Or your sisterhood. Familyship?)"


"Being sick can be really lonely," she wrote on her site. "One major reason is because most people don't know what to say, so they disappear, or say the wrong thing entirely."

The designer, who runs, wrote that many cards on the market for people with cancer fall short in expressing a meaningful sentiment.

The cards, which are hand-drawn in Photoshop and feature her signature colorful illustration style with loopy bubble letters, are $4.50 each on her site.


"'Get well soon' cards don’t make sense when someone might not," McDowell wrote.

"Sympathy cards can make people feel like you think they're already dead. A 'fuck cancer' card is a nice sentiment, but when I had cancer, it never really made me feel better. And I never personally connected with jokes about being bald or getting a free boob job, which is what most 'cancer cards' focus on."

Emily McDowell

This card was inspired by McDowell's experience of only wanting to eat McDonald's soft-serve and cranberry juice during chemo. "Chemo changes your taste buds, and food gets all weird," she wrote.

"It's completely applicable to celebrate with vanilla soft-serve and cranberry juice, this card, or something else (a Porsche?) every time someone you love gets through a chemo session. Because that shit is really hard."

"When someone you love gets sick, it's really natural to get scared and uncomfortable and not know what to say," she wrote. "It's happened to all of us."

BuzzFeed News has reached out to McDowell for comment on the new project.