What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say to a Cancer Patient

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When a beloved friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, finding the right words can seem impossible. Do you pretend as if everything is normal? Should you adopt a somber demeanor when speaking to them? What is the best way to let them know that you're there to support them?

Unfortunately, confusion compels many people to withdraw from a loved one with cancer. They don't know what to say, so they don't say anything at all; leaving patients feeling isolated and alone, just when they need their friends and family the most.

Countless members of the AgingCare.com community have been on both sides of the table—as cancer patients, and as caregivers to loved ones with cancer or another serious illness. In the Cancer Support Group, they offer their insights on what to say to a friend or family member with cancer:

  • "Take your lead from them. If they want to talk about their disease and their feelings, be a good listener. If they want to reserve heavy-duty emotional talks for family members and very close friends and only wants to have "ordinary" conversations with more casual friends, then stay within the topics they initiate. Isolating them because you don't know what to say isn't good for either of you. Call them. Let them take the lead in the conversations."
  • "Let them talk, listen to them, sympathize with them about their illness. They probably just need an ear to listen. I would also send them a card to let them know they are in your thoughts."
  • "When someone has cancer they do not become the disease. They are the same person that they always were. Cancer is not contagious, so there is no reason to fear or avoid a friend. Just treat them the same as you did before they had cancer."
  • "Back when I had cancer, I lost most of my friends because they didn't know what to say or they were scared they would say the wrong thing. I just needed someone to talk to. I wound up calling my ex-mother-in-law because she would always make me laugh and laugh, and she enjoyed the calls, too. We became the best of friends."
  • "The one thing I have learned as I've gotten older is that it isn't about my feelings, it is about being there for another person. All you have to do is call, say ‘I am so sorry.' Let them know you will be praying for them and just listen. Your friend will probably do all the talking and that is what they need now. Sometimes the only thing we can do for each other is say a prayer and listen."
  • "The friends who cheer me up the most never talk about cancer or leukemia. They join me for lunch and talk about vacations, new babies, weddings and anything that will make me laugh. One hour away from all my cares is life-saving."

Of course, there's no magical message that will make a person with cancer feel completely at ease; they face a monumental battle that ultimately only they can walk. But your love and support can work wonders to fortify their strength and courage to keep fighting over the days, months and years of their disease.

What would you say to a close friend or family member who's just been diagnosed with cancer? How would you communicate your support?

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10 Comments

I told my daughter in 2004 " Cancer offers you the opportunity to decide what is important" She decided shoes were important. She decided big Christmases belonged to little people. She decided not to wait for the storm to pass, She learned to dance in the rain. When the hair on the side of her head fell out, she dyed the top bright blue and spiked it. She got a golf cart and forced the police department to recognize it as her "wheelcart". She never let it take away her humor.
I was the one who wrote "Back when I had cancer, I lost most of my friends because they didn't know what to say or they were scared they would say the wrong thing. I just needed someone to talk to. I wound up calling my ex-mother-in-law because she would always make me laugh and laugh, and she enjoyed the calls, too. We became the best of friends."

My ex-mother-in-law [who is 88] and I still chat at least every other week, she feels she can tell me things she wouldn't tell her daughter. We laugh about all our aches and pains, and how we can't remember squat half the time :)

As for what to say to someone who has cancer, there was one co-worker who use to call me she would say "how are you doing?" in such a sad voice, it got to a point I dreaded her calls.

I wanted someone to say to me "Man, that sucks big time getting cancer, bet you are scared, what are we going to do about it"... at least that is real and a good opening to a dialog.

Yep, my friends disappeared because I was too tired to join them in shopping or eating out, they just got tired of me saying *no*, but I wished they would have continued to try. That was back in 2009, and I am still saying *no* because now I am too tired because of my parents :P
As a survivor (5 years in November) of breast cancer, I can honestly say that even though it's a tough battle, going on with things trying to be as normal as possible is the greatest gift your family and friends can give you. Laughter is truly the best medicine. Having a good time with everyone, even working as much as possible, is a good way to get through it. One of my nurses during that time said that getting up in the morning, following a routine and even putting on makeup even when you don't feel like helps so much -- she was right! Taking care of yourself is sooooo important.
So in answer to the question, I would say to another person just diagnosed with cancer -- "Do the best you can each day to stay positive and keep up with a routine, and don't forget to laugh even when you don't feel like it -- it helps, believe me," ask if there is anything I can do for you". "Blessings and prayers each day".