Encouragement – What to say and do (and NOT to say and do) when someone you know has cancer

Cancer is among the leading causes of death worldwide.  It touches the lives of millions of people.  In fact, about every 1 in 3 people living today will contract some form of the disease in their lifetime.  In 2018, it’s estimated that 1,735,350 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 609,640 people will die from the disease.  And According to the National Cancer Institute the number of new cancer cases per year is expected to rise to 23.6 million by 2030.

Suffice it to say, each of us at some point in our lives will either be facing a cancer diagnosis, or know someone who is.  And when that time comes, knowing what to say and do (or NOT to say and do) may just be the comfort and encouragement needed to help your friends and loved ones.

When I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma stage 3b (b=symptoms such as drenching night sweats, severe fatigue and weight loss), I remember a friend asking me how I knew I had cancer (as if my oncologist gave me a wrong diagnosis).  I said “I noticed my lymph nodes were swollen on my neck.”  He then said “Well, my lymph nodes swell on my neck occasionally.”  Really?  I wanted to say “Then go to the doctor and get it checked out!  Maybe you have cancer too!”

I know most friends, family, neighbors and co-workers mean well, but they just usually have no idea what to say to a cancer patient.  Who does!  I can honestly say that until I became a cancer patient, I never really thought about what I would say (or what I’ve said) to others who have cancer.

I researched (google of course) this topic and came up with some suggestions from other cancer patients.  Maybe these will help if you find yourself face-to-face with someone you know who has cancer:

  • Don’t ask about prognosis. If the patient volunteers that information, it’s O.K. to talk further about its implications. Otherwise, it’s better to stifle your curiosity.
  • Don’t say “I know how you feel” because you can’t possibly know. Better to ask, “Do you want to talk about how you feel, how having cancer is affecting you?”
  • Don’t say “You are brave.”  This seems like a kind thing to say, but many patients don’t know how to handle this compliment because they don’t feel brave. One cancer patient described this statement to her family and friends like this: If you were on a falling bridge and the only way to survive was to jump to the side, you would do it. Would you say that was a brave move? Or would you say that you did what you had to do to survive?  Cancer patients have been forced into a situation they don’t want to be in and must take immediate action. Anything that isn’t really an option doesn’t really seem brave.
  • Don’t say “Stay positive.”  Don’t preach to the patient about staying positive, which can induce feelings of guilt in the patient if things don’t go well. Better to say, “I’m here for you no matter what happens,” and mean it.  “Just stay positive” can imply that the patient is not allowed to break down or have bad days. People need to work through a range of emotions when diagnosed with a major illness. It’s OK to be negative or to question. Furthermore, having a positive attitude will not cure cancer on its own. It certainly lightens the seriousness of the diagnosis, but it doesn’t actually help cure cancer.  Also, it’s rare to find a cancer patient who doesn’t have a “positive attitude” as best that they could. By insinuating otherwise, you’re just being callous.
  • Don’t say “You don’t look sick.”  Most people probably don’t realize it, but this is an insult to a cancer patient.  Whether or not the cancer patient “looks sick” or not, changes nothing.  The person still has cancer, and is struggling with all the emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis.  They can also look good, but feel extremely bad.  Just because they may not “look sick” on the outside, their body is trying to kill them from the inside.  Show compassion by saying something like “how are you feeling today?”, or “is there anything I can do for you?”, but never say “you don’t look sick”.
  • Don’t make it about you or compare it to something you have been through.
  • If they don’t want to talk, don’t force the issue. Just let them know that you’re available when and if they want to talk.
  • Don’t try to find the positives. There isn’t much of a silver lining to a cancer diagnosis, so avoid saying things like, “It could be worse,” or, “At least it isn’t…” For the person with the disease, this probably is the worst case scenario.
  • Don’t express overly pessimistic opinions.
  • Don’t leave if things get tough. If the person gets angry, let them vent. If they tell you they’re afraid, open up the conversation so they can unload on you. “What are you most afraid of?” “What can I do to help with your fears?” These situations can be hard to manage, but put them right back in the patient’s court and let them do the talking. That way, you don’t need to worry about what to say.
  • Avoid saying things that minimize what the patient is going through such as “Don’t worry,” “Everything is going to be okay” or “Cheer up.”
  • Nobody deserves to get cancer. Even if you believe that the person’s lifestyle choices contributed to their disease, or if you think it was “God’s will” that this happened, keep it to yourself.

How You Can Help

There are a million ways you can tell someone you care about them through actions. The great thing about caring in action, is that you feel like you have helped to carry some of the weight of your loved one’s burden. Even the most minor task can be more appreciated than you know. 

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Spend time with them.  Visit, call, email or text.
  • Actively listen to the patient when they are speaking and encourage them to continue if you sense they want or need to.
  • Send a card to let them know you are thinking about them.
  • Don’t know anything about the different types of cancer? Find out more about your loved one’s diagnosis.
  • Offer to care for their pets or children.
  • Mow their lawn or shovel their sidewalk.
  • Prepare some meals for their fridge or freezer. Provide them with fancy paper plates and cups so they don’t need to worry about cleaning up.
  • Run errands for them.
  • Offer to do some of their household chores such as washing the dishes, vacuuming or doing laundry. Consider a gift certificate for a cleaning service.
  • Offer to provide transportation to appointments.
  • Bring a movie, book or CD for them to enjoy while in the hospital or at home.  Our Book
  • Tell them they are loved, and show them by your actions.

Above All, Be Compassionate

Knowing what to say in stressful situations is always difficult, especially when the situation is a life-threatening diagnosis. The most important things are to think before you speak, allow the person to talk without interruption and to make them the focus of the conversation. Pay attention to cues about how much or how little they wish to talk about their diagnosis.

Expressing care and compassion in the things you say can go a long way on your loved one’s cancer journey.