What To Say When Cancer Returns

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

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.

I recently gave a talk at a conference of radiation therapists about how to support patients undergoing cancer treatment.

One attendee said, “I know how to help patients when they come in for treatment for the first time. But I stumble over my words when a patient comes back for treatment because they’ve had a recurrence. What can I say to help them?”

It’s a very good question. When cancer returns, the focus usually shifts from curing the cancer to controlling the cancer. It’s an entirely different situation from an initial diagnosis and both patient and health professional know it.

The patient is likely discouraged because they again have cancer, their prognosis may not be good, and they are facing more treatment that wasn’t much fun the first time around.

As evidenced by the question at the conference, even health professionals can feel awkward knowing what to say.

A woman at the conference raised her hand and said, “What I say is that I’m sorry that that you’ve had a recurrence, but we are here for you and we will take good care of you.”

It’s a simple, honest response that I hope to hear if I ever have a recurrence. The phrase, “I’m sorry,” is such a human and caring response.

And “being here for you” and “taking good care of you” are comforting words when comfort is needed more than anything.

When cancer comes back, you know the future is uncertain and you aren’t reassured by hearing that, “you’ll beat this.”

You are reassured when your family, friends, and caregivers recognize your reality and are with you for whatever comes.

Reprinted with Permission of the Ithaca Journal. 

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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