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What to Say to Someone With Cancer

When a friend or loved one is diagnosed with cancer, the right words can be hard to come by.  The good news: you can’t go wrong with heartfelt authenticity. Guest author, psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, has some wise tips on what to say. Plus, the 7 things to avoid at all costs.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
December 19, 2013
Episode #139

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Memoirs, books, and blogs by cancer patients and survivors abound, often including horror stories of insensitive comments that were meant well, but came out the wrong way: “Other people have it worse!” “All you have to do is cut out sugar!” “I looooooove that wig on you!” 

From the fertile ground of awkward comments has sprung many online guides for what not to say.  Unfortunately, many are well-intentioned but awkward - or worse, sarcastic and downright mean.

To put this right, let’s condense all the well-meant but inept comments into one pretend person: we’ll call her Bumbling Buddy.  She’s fundamentally kind, but often misses the mark.  We’ll take a sympathetic look at what’s behind our Bumbling Buddy’s awkward phrasing and gently steer her into non-mortifying territory:

Bumbling statement #1: “Everything will be fine!  You can beat this thing!”

Bumbling Buddy wants to think positively.  She wants to be hopeful and inspiring, which is understandable.  But she paints too rosy a picture.  Her friend with cancer might not be fine and knows it.  A statement like this is meant to be reassuring but minimizes the gravity of the situation.  It also might make the friend less likely disclose bad news to Buddy for fear she’ll gloss over the very real, and likely very awful, experience.  Instead, try this:  “I’m here for you as you fight this.”

Bumbling statement #2: “Just think positively.  Visualize yourself getting better and you will.”

Getting better is not entirely under the cancer patient’s control.  If it were a matter of mindset, no one would ever die of cancer. 

The intention behind this is good; Bumbling Buddy wants to do something, not just stand idly by.  She wants to offer helpful, hopeful advice.  However, getting better is not entirely under the cancer patient’s control.  If it were a matter of mindset, no one would ever die of cancer.  It also places the responsibility on the patient, as if they can control the cancer simply by being positive or having the right fighting spirit. 

If the cancer spreads or their health worsens, they might feel like they failed or didn’t think positively enough.  If Buddy wants to offer support, she could try listening instead.  Listening is an action.  It may not feel like you’re doing anything, but it’s a rare and valuable skill.  Your loved one is probably inundated by anxious chatter; a listening ear is better than any lame advice.

Bumbling statement #3: “Let me know if I can do anything to help.”

I’ve been Buddy here.  I’ve made this mistake; I’ve murmured this statement, often because I want to be helpful, but also because I’m worried about being intrusive or offering something my friend doesn’t need.  I’ve since realized that the statement’s very openness makes it vague, and it places the burden on the patient to be a taskmaster. 

The urge to pitch in is laudable, though, and shouldn’t be squelched. In addition to offering to help, try following it up with some specifics.  “I’d love to do something to help out.  Since summer’s coming up, may I be in charge of mowing your lawn while you’re in treatment?”  or “May I come over sometime soon?  I’ll bring the whole last season of Family Guy and your favorite cannoli.”  Even something small counts, like “May I water the plant in your cubicle while you’re on leave?”

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