Most people find it awkward when first talking with a friend or acquaintance who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Even though nearly everyone is well-intentioned, many say things that hurt or mystify more than they comfort.
Based on my own experiences and my conversations with others with cancer, here are some suggestions:
What not to say
- “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.” Everyone’s natural instinct is to reassure the newly diagnosed that everything will be OK. While encouraging words are welcome, most people just diagnosed with cancer will be worried. Rather than dismissing those worries, acknowledge them. Honest conversation is likely to follow.
- “That’s too bad about your cancer, but I could be hit by a bus tomorrow.” No one in the history of civilization has ever found comfort in these words, but people say it all the time.
- “Do you smoke?” People with lung cancer get asked this routinely. This is blaming, not supporting. People seem to ask this question for their own peace of mind. “You smoked and got lung cancer. I don’t smoke, therefore I don’t have to worry.”
- You have to see this doctor or have this treatment or begin this cancer-fighting diet. If people want your advice, they’ll ask for it.
- “Tell me how I can help.” This comment often comes from the heart, but it puts the burden on the person with cancer to think of and assign tasks. It’s far better just to do things. Bring meals, take care of the kids for an evening, walk the dog, write cards of support, or call and say, “I’m heading to the supermarket. What can I pick up for you?”
What to say
- “I’m so sorry.” This is a good and honest response.
- “How are you doing with all of this?”A simple question like this lets the person with cancer take the lead and opens the door for conversation.
- “Would you like to grab a cup of coffee and talk?”
- “I’m keeping you in my thoughts and prayers.” Positive energy always helps, in whatever form works for you and the person with cancer.
- One friend describes two layers of response whenever she tells someone that she has cancer. The first layer is immediate, honest and from the gut. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” The second layer is when the person begins saying those things they think they should say. “You’ll be fine. You’ll be playing tennis in a month.” She wishes that people would stop talking after the “I’m so sorry.”
As with other difficult conversations, the specific words are less important than the tangible presence of friends and loved ones. It’s OK if the words get a bit tangled – it’s the heart that matters.
Excerpted with permission from When Your Life is Touched By Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care by Bob Riter, copyright (c) 2014, Hunter House Inc., Publishers.
From the Ithaca Journal, September 29, 2008
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