Survivors Can Help the Newly Diagnosed

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

When friends I haven’t heard from for many years suddenly call me, I wait for them to say, “Bob, I just got diagnosed with cancer.”

This is not unique to me. People who have had cancer are often asked for advice by those who are newly diagnosed. And quite a few of us feel compelled to give our advice whether it’s requested or not.

Similar conversations take place in cancer support groups. The people attending for the first time are like sponges, soaking up every word. What survivors say to the newcomers can range from being helpful to being terrifying.

Here are some general guidelines:

The most important rule for survivors is to do more listening than talking. The conversation isn’t about you – it’s about the person who was just diagnosed. When someone tells you that they were just been diagnosed with cancer, they’re looking more for understanding than for directives.

The other important rule is to make the distinction between sharing your own experiences versus telling the newly diagnosed what is best for them. It is fine to say, “This is what I did,” but do not say, “This is what you should do.”

People who are newly diagnosed tend to worry about “what if” scenarios. They ask themselves: What if the cancer has spread? What if the treatment doesn’t work? What if my car breaks down and I can’t get to treatment?

These thoughts are not always rational, but they are understandable. Survivors don’t need to make the newly diagnosed feel even more anxious by sharing every bad experience they’ve ever had or heard about.

You don’t need to be irrationally positive, but you shouldn’t be aggressively negative either.

And no matter how serious the diagnosis, it’s important for the person to maintain hope. Not only hope for a cure, but hope for a smooth treatment process.

In sum, survivors can best help the newly diagnosed by listening and supporting. As the Shaker saying goes, “Let your words be few and seasoned with grace.”


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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