What to Say to Someone With Cancer
Cancer can be a tricky subject to navigate. For friends and loved ones, it can feel like you just don’t know what to say when you learn that someone in your life has gotten a cancer diagnosis or is going through treatment. For those with cancer, it can be frustrating to feel like everyone is handling you with extreme care and not treating you like the same person you were – and still are.
Communication during this time can be awkward for everyone involved. People have an overwhelming amount of sympathy toward each other, yet they just don’t know what to say to make the situation better. They don’t know exactly what the person with cancer is going through, and they don’t want to say the wrong thing.
This mentality is frustrating for cancer patients who just want some normalcy in their currently tumultuous life. So how can friends and family make the best of these situations?
My advice is always just be honest with them. Say, “I want to help you and be here for you, but I don’t know what to say. What can I do?” That way, the patient can express what they’re looking for. If they want to talk about their condition, talk about that with them. If they just want to talk about baseball, talk baseball.
For friends and family, it can feel inconsiderate to talk about the things you do in your everyday life that your loved one with cancer might not get to do right now – working out, going out for dinner with friends or even making a trip to the grocery store might make patients feel nostalgic for life pre-cancer.
In my experience, most patients would rather hear about what’s going on in the lives of their loved ones. They don’t want to be treated as a “sick person” any more than they already are.
What Not to Say
Each person’s experience, cancer diagnosis and treatment plan is unique – so one important thing to remember is to avoid comparisons or assuming you understand what someone is going through.
I advise people not to say, ‘When my mom had cancer …’ or ‘When I went through treatment …’ because it’s totally different from what the patient is going through. I see many patients get upset by these comments because their condition and treatment is solely theirs, and hearing about a friend’s experience with lung cancer – while important in its own right – is not similar to the cancer they are currently battling.
If you feel you’ve offended someone, be straightforward in your apology to your loved one. Let them know you didn’t mean to hurt their feelings and that you are there to support them in whatever they need.
Don’t Take It Personally
Cancer is a difficult battle to fight, and comes with its own stages of emotional processing. If you feel you can’t get through to your loved one, don’t take it personally.
It’s tough getting diagnosed with cancer and going through treatment. Patients miss their healthy lives, they may be embarrassed by how their body is responding to chemotherapy or radiation, or they may just feel like, ‘why me?’ If they lash out or withdraw, know that the bad days will pass. Support them as best you can, even if that means giving them space.
Cynthia Ulreich is an oncology-certified nurse practitioner working with cancer patients and their families at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.
Whether you are going through cancer treatment or serve a loved one as a caregiver, there are resources to help you. Visit henryford.com/cancer to learn more.
Check out some of our other Henry Ford LiveWell blog articles on coping with cancer, like advice on getting better sleep while undergoing treatment, tips for cancer caregivers and more. And subscribe to receive weekly emails of our latest health and wellness articles.