How to talk about cancer can be very touchy. If you’re the person facing a diagnosis, you want to communicate the right information without giving too much information. You want to be honest, but also not scare your loved ones. Tips for those who have been diagnosed can be found in our article here.
For caregivers and friends, sometimes you don’t know what to say. You have your own emotions about it but don’t want to make your loved to have to worry about how you’re handling it.
At Cancer Services, we know this is an issue. We work with people facing cancer to provide tips and talking points and also offer the community some ideas on how to support someone through cancer.
What do you say when someone you know has cancer?
You can respond with something brief and genuine. “I’m so sorry to hear about your diagnosis. I want to be here for you. How are you doing?”
Once you open up the conversation, give them a chance to lead what you talk about.
TIP: The most important thing you can do for someone is listening.
Do your best to do this without judging and without “cheerleading.” Your ability to sit with someone who shares feelings of fear or uncertainty is one of the most significant things you can do to support them.
Many people feel pressure to always share good news. Try your best to alleviate that pressure and let them know that they can talk about whatever it is they are dealing with.
Instead of asking: “How are you?” or “How is your dad?” be more time specific.
TIPS for starting the conversation:
- “How did the last test go?”
- “How did the last treatment go?”
- “How are things going today?”
Sometimes people will be tired of talking about their diagnosis. Take the cues from them. If they change the subject, be comfortable talking about normal life. Sometimes that’s exactly what they need.
And remember, it’s okay to cry.
TIPS for making life easier!
Be specific about your offers to help. Don’t offer to do things that you don’t plan to do. And refrain from saying, “call me if you need something” or “let me know how I can help.”
Instead, offer specifics like:
- “Can I mow your lawn this weekend?”
- “I’d like to offer to give your kids a ride to school or other activities.”
- “I’d like to take you to your appointments when you need it. Do you need a ride to your next one?”
- “Can I walk your dog twice a week?”
- “Can I pick up some groceries for you?”
- “Can I coordinate meals for you? What days would be best?”
- “Can I come over and clean house/do laundry for you/cook a meal?”
TIP: If you know someone else who has been through cancer treatment, find out from them what they most needed during treatment.
Stay connected throughout the journey.
Cancer treatment can be long. People are usually overwhelmed with response at the initial diagnosis and then friends and family seem to disappear. Checking in regularly with cards, phone calls and visits over the entire course of treatment and beyond will be tremendously helpful.
Don’t stop inviting them to do things. Sometimes, it’s after treatment has completed that the emotional needs are highest.
Give advice only when you are asked!!
Friends and loved ones often take on the task of researching the diagnosis, treatment options and alternative therapies. Be cautious about giving advice or offering unsolicited assistance in making treatment decisions.
Many people facing a diagnosis are overwhelmed with well intentioned suggestions for treatments. Rather than jumping right in to tell someone about a treatment you heard about, ask them “are you overwhelmed with advice on treatments?” or say “I have a friend who did this. I can find out more information, if that would be helpful”.
And let it go if they don’t seem interested.
Support your friend’s treatment decisions.
It’s the person with cancer who gets to decide what treatments to utilize. It is their body and spirit that have to bear the impact of the cancer. Support the decision they make, even if it’s not the same choice you think you would make.
TIP: Some things are better left unsaid. So, don’t say them!
Here are some things NOT TO SAY!
- “I know how you feel.”
- “Did you smoke?”
- “How did you get it?”
- “You should/shouldn’t…”
- “Why didn’t you tell me?”
- “You don’t look sick.”
- “I wish I could lose that much weight.”
- Don’t share a story with a bad ending. Keep those stories to yourself and instead, share something positive.
- Don’t set up a false front or “happy face” if you don’t really feel that way.
YES – Share your true feelings.
Just because you don’t know what to say doesn’t mean you should avoid the person. A simple, and honest way to handle this is to say “I don’t know what to say.”
You can redirect when you don’t want to talk with others about your friend or loved one’s cancer diagnosis.
Acknowledge that you are dealing with cancer, too!
- “Thank you so much for your concern, but I need to focus on something else today.”
- “Thank you for asking, but I’d rather not talk about it right now.”
- “You know, usually I am okay to talk about things like this, but today I just can’t handle it. I’m sure you understand.”
- “I’d prefer to not go into details.”
Here’s a PRINTABLE HANDOUT with this information on What to say when someone has cancer.