What Do You Say To Someone Who Has Cancer?

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I have worked with individuals with cancer and their families and friends for several decades and had many family and friends who have been diagnosed with cancer. When I learned yesterday of another very dear family friend has been diagnosed with cancer I thought back to the very first time I knew anyone who had cancer. At that time I struggled with what to say to this dear person who had been told they had cancer. This is a tough question for many family and friends. I will share what I have learned.

In many respects you can say the same things you said to that individual before they had cancer. If you previously liked to talk about sports or shopping you can still discuss those topics. You also should NOT be afraid to talk about the disease. The most important thing you can do is to listen to the words, tone of voice and observe the body language of the individual. They will let you know if they want to talk about the cancer or not or when. If they do not want to talk about it at first just let them know you are willing to listen when they are ready. Also, they will not want to talk about it all the time with everyone so they will want to have other conversations.

If your family member or friend does want to talk then just LISTEN. Do not try to come up with some special words to make them feel better. Just listen. Be supportive. You can remind them of positive coping strategies or strengths they have. It is especially IMPORTANT to not start telling stories of other individuals you have known with cancer. Each individual is different, with different diagnosis, different treatment, different reactions to cancer and treatment. Do try to keep calling, writing or visiting. Often individuals with cancer become isolated as friends and colleagues no longer call or visit.

If you sincerely want something to do to help your friend or family member try offering concrete ways of helping. These might include: grocery shopping, providing rides to cancer treatments, picking up medicine at the pharmacy, help around the house, cut the grass. At first they may not accept the help, but if they are having treatment (e.g. surgery, chemotherapy, radiation) they may end up needing help. Keep offering periodically, but do NOT be pushy. Overall, continue to provide emotional support and a positive attitude and LISTEN.
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About the Author


BA, MPH

Steve shares what he learned from his personal experience with cancer.

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