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.

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

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Bumbling statement #4: “You don’t look sick.” Or “You look so much better!  Last time I saw you, you looked awful!”

Some individuals are reassured to hear they look “normal” and don’t have the big C stamped on their forehead.  Most are sensitive about what surgery, chemo, radiation, or cancer itself has done to their appearance.  Bumbling Buddy means to compliment her friend, but instead the statements are, respectively, invalidating and insulting.  Either way, the friend probably feels like she’s in a fishbowl under scrutiny.  Steer clear of evaluation of appearance.  Instead, try: “It’s so nice to see you!”

Bumbling statement #5:  Lung cancer?  Isn’t that one of the really bad ones?  Yeah, my aunt died of that.  And my husband’s mother had it and she had this really awful doctor—let me tell you…”   

Bumbling Buddy is looking for a way to connect.  Under most circumstances, telling horror stories is a great way to connect.  Mutual outrage about ridiculous situations is usually a great way to build common ground: “My niece stood in line for 7 hours at American Girl, too!”  “My car got towed from that Target parking lot, too!” 

But in the case of cancer, telling horror stories takes away hope and instills fear.  Plus, it makes it about you, not about them.  Instead, try: “Lung cancer? I’m thinking of you and your family. I’m sending you good vibes for your surgery and chemotherapy.”

Bumbling statement #6: “I know exactly how you feel.”

This statement tries to be empathetic—always a good goal.  Bumbling Buddy’s friend with cancer probably feels awful, and Buddy’s trying to show she’s on her friend’s side—again, good.  But this statement presumes too much, plus it sets up an expert-novice dynamic, something to be reserved for the patient and her doctor.  Instead, try: “If you’d like to talk about it, I’d love to hear how you are feeling.”

Bumbling statement #7: (nothing)

This is a tempting one.  Cancer can be unspeakable.  Bumbling Buddy might rationalize that her friend would be upset if she brought it up, or that her friend is probably overwhelmed right now and wouldn’t want to talk.  However, I’ve heard many patients say that cancer was the litmus test for who their friends are—sometimes acquaintances beat the door down to help while old friends drift away.  I’ll admit to making this mistake myself.  I learned the hard way that couples don’t count as a unit.  Even if your partner says something, you should, too, even if you just blurt out “I’m so sorry.”

All in all, don’t try to memorize the “right” thing to say.  Indeed, if this list makes you anxious about saying the wrong thing, throw it out and go see your loved one.  If you are present and genuine, you can’t go wrong.   If you bawl like a baby, spend most of the visit examining your shoes, or fear a crushing awkward silence, it’s okay.  If there is any time when it's okay to be sad, uncertain, and awkward, this is it.  So simply try.  Do your best.  Your loved one doesn’t need a witty, well-crafted turn of phrase; he or she just needs you.  So pick up the kids, make a casserole, drive her to chemo, or simply watch all the old Arrested Development episodes with her. Be you, all the same.

Folded hands image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine.  Ellen graduated from Brown University, earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, and completed her training at Harvard Medical School.  In her clinic, she treats everything from depression to trauma to panic, but she has a special place in her heart for anxiety disorders.  Ellen is also an active research scientist and develops therapy programs for individuals and families living with chronic illness.  She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 2.    



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