How do you talk to someone who has just been told they have cancer?

What should you do if you find out that a friend had been diagnosed with cancer?  Some people are really good at this but others feel at a loss to know what to say. Some even say things that are not helpful at all.

I can give you my point of view because I’ve had breast cancer that needed a total mastectomy and chemotherapy, a Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) that required surgery and radiotherapy and many BCCs that have had to be cut out.

As a facilitator of support groups for cancer patients for almost 20 years I’ve heard the same thing over and over again about how some responses from family and friends have felt truly horrible. Here are some things people said to me that I never found helpful. In fact they really upset me!

“Oh well, survival rates are really good today.”  This is irrelevant when someone is in shock, trying to come to terms with the news.

“I’m sure you/he/she will be all right.”  Actually you do NOT know this.

“Aren’t you lucky that you’ve got the best specialist ?”  Even if this is true, the newly diagnosed person will not be feeling lucky about anything just now. After all they’ve just been told they’ve got cancer and NO ONE would ever say this was lucky.

“The best thing you can do is be positive.”  While being positive (I prefer the word optimistic) can help with anxiety along the way there is no evidence that a positive attitude has any bearing on a cancer patient’s prognosis.

“Oh, my aunt/cousin/boss had that cancer and they’re fine now.”  This can feel very dismissive. There are many different grades and stages for every type of cancer.  You don’t know all the details of your friend’s cancer and they probably don’t either at this point.  They might like to hear about people who have survived once they’ve got over the initial shock, but probably not just now.

“This is a journey and you will get to the end of it.” Um, yeah – we will all get to the end of the journey, but you have absolutely no way of knowing how things will end for your friend.

THIS is the truth:

There are some people who are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they just disappear.  This can be fear of hurting their friend or fear of cancer itself.  (“If you can get it, I might too…”).  Many friendships have foundered because of people’s fear.

The ‘disappearing act’ is incredibly hurtful for someone who thought you were their friend and really needs your support. 

What I personally found most helpful was when people understood that I wasn’t expecting them to ‘fix it’ for me.  Some of the things empathetic people said to me that were truly helpful are:

“I don’t know what to say; I feel helpless.  Please tell me if there is anything I can do.”

“Oh, that’s horrible news.  I’m so sorry this has happened to you.”

“You’re looking pretty good today.  How do you actually feel though?”  It’s wonderful what can be done with make-up to present a prettier picture than the reality.  Simple recognition of this is really good.

And when I was undergoing treatment and felt revolting, the best thing anyone could say to me was, “You’re having a really tough time today, aren’t you?  I’m sorry – it just sucks.”

Your friend with cancer knows you can’t fix it for them. All they need is acknowledgment from you that they are going through a tough time and an offer to be there to support them in any way you can. 

Of course no one sets out to be hurtful, but it’s important to think about the impact your words might have on someone confronting a life-threatening disease. If you simply don’t have the words, sending a funny card with a loving message is sometimes enough.

No one is a mind reader, so ask them to be specific if there is something you can do for them.  If they seem to have a hard time thinking of anything, make up your own list of suggestions such as doing the washing and/or ironing for them, mowing the lawn, taking the dog for a walk, taking the kids out for the afternoon, going to the supermarket, cooking some meals or driving them to treatment and ask what would be helpful for them.  This will make it a lot easier for you to be supportive in a useful way and will help you with your feelings of helplessness.

© Jane Gillespie

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