You’re not alone if you don’t know what to say to someone who has cancer. This section will help you sensitively navigate interactions and conversations.
You’re not alone if you don’t know what to say to someone who has cancer. You might not know the person very well, or you may have a close relationship. It can be harder in the workplace because relationships with co-workers are so varied. You might not know the person very well, or you may have worked together for many years and be close friends.
The most important thing you can do is mention the situation in some way that feels comfortable for you. You can show interest and concern, you can express encouragement, and/or you can offer support. Sometimes the simplest expressions of concern are the most meaningful. And sometimes just listening is the most helpful thing you can do.
But try to listen without judging and without “cheerleading.” Your ability to sit with your friend or loved one as they share their feelings is probably one of the most significant contributions you can make to their well-being.
Give advice only when you are asked. Friends and loved ones often take on the task of researching the diagnosis, treatment options or clinical trials. This can be very helpful, as the information is often overwhelming. What is not helpful is saying, “You ought to try this” or “You should do that.” Instead, let your loved one know you’ve done research and allow them to decide if they want to know more.
Using humor can be an important way of coping. It can also be another approach to support and encouragement. Let the person with cancer take the lead; it’s healthy if they find something funny about a side effect, like hair loss or increased appetite, and you can certainly join them in a good laugh. This can be a great way to relieve stress and take a break from the more serious nature of the situation. But you never want to joke unless you know the person with cancer can handle it and appreciate the humor.
Feeling sorry for someone with cancer, or feeling guilty for being healthy yourself, are normal responses. But by turning those feelings into offerings of support you make the feelings useful. Asking how you can help can take away some of the awkwardness. Cancer is a scary disease. It can create a great deal of uneasiness for people who don’t have experience dealing with it. Don’t be ashamed of your own fears or discomfort. Be honest with the person about how you feel. You might find that talking about it is easier than you think.
Cancer often reminds us of our own mortality. If you are close in age to the person with cancer or if you are very fond of them, you may find that this experience creates anxiety for you. You might notice feelings somewhat like those of the person who has cancer: disbelief, sadness, uncertainty, anger, sleeplessness, and fears about your own health. If this is the case, you may want to get support for yourself from a mental health professional or a local support group.
Be prepared to see some physical changes over time, as these are shared by many people with cancer. The cancer itself causes some of these changes and others are the result of side effects of cancer treatment. Keep in mind that each cancer journey is different. The person with cancer may or may not have any of the following:
Avoid making comments when their appearance isn’t as good, such as “You’re looking pale,” or “You’ve lost weight.” It’s very likely that they’re acutely aware of it, and they may feel embarrassed if people comment on it.
Sometimes the most surprising thing about a cancer diagnosis is how the patient handles it. They may show unbelievable strength you never knew they had, or be more vulnerable than you knew. They might show a number of different emotions—sadness, anger, guilt, fear, ambivalence, avoidance—and sometimes they may show all at once or change from moment to moment.
Each person reacts in their own way to cancer and its treatment. It’s normal to feel sad and grieve over the changes that a cancer diagnosis brings. The person’s emotions and mood can change from day to day, even from hour to hour. This is normal.
A person with cancer may go through any or all of the following emotions and thoughts:
Over time, the person may discover some changes that are good:
Cancer can be very unpredictable. Expect that they will have good days and bad days. There may be times when the uncertainty and fear cause the person with cancer to seem angry, depressed, or withdrawn. This is normal and is a part of the process of grieving what was lost to the cancer (things like health, energy, time). Over time, most people are able to adjust to the new reality in their lives and go forward.
Keep things normal and don’t feel that you always have to talk about cancer. Often, we try to make life easier for the person going through cancer by “doing things” for them. It is a way of feeling useful at a time when we would otherwise feel helpless. However, it’s just as important to respect the person’s wishes to do normal “pre-cancer” tasks. For some people, being able to do things like cook dinner or continue working can lessen the sense that cancer is taking over their lives.
Include them in activities and social events. If they aren’t up to doing something, let them be the one to decide to say no. Keep inviting them unless they tell you otherwise.
Offer to help in specific ways. Here are some ideas:
Hospital visits are not mandatory cancer diagnosis "etiquette.” Many people have a deep aversion to hospitals, and if you identify with this, know that there are many other ways you can show how much you care. If you don’t have a problem with hospitals, there are a few things you should consider before making a visit:
Remember, it’s not about you. During your visit, make sure your conversation is focused on the patient.