It can be difficult to know what to say to someone with cancer. Unless you’ve been there yourself, you can’t possibly understand how it feels.
Many people say inappropriate things without realizing it. We often do the best we can, but our efforts still fall short. How do we find the right words to talk to someone with cancer?
Many cancer survivors share similar stories of awkward encounters and upsetting comments made by well-meaning individuals. Their collective observations help us define “cancer etiquette,” or rules of conduct for communicating with them. Since each person experiences cancer differently, one approach does not necessarily work for everyone. This information serves as a starting point for talking to someone with cancer. There is no single right way.
Don’t ignore them. Some people disappear when someone they know gets cancer. The worst thing you can do is avoid the person because you don’t know how to handle it. Cancer can be lonely and isolating as it is.
Tell them, “I’m here for you,” or “We’ll get through this.” It’s even okay to say, “I don’t know what to say,” or send a note that says, “I’m thinking of you.” Just stay connected.
Think before you speak. Your words and actions can be powerful. One comment can instantly undo someone’s positive mood. Don’t be overly grave and mournful. Avoid clichés, like “hero” and “battle.” If the person gets worse, does it mean they didn’t fight hard enough? Try to imagine if you were in your friend’s shoes. What you would want someone to say to you?
Follow their lead. Let the person with cancer set the tone about what he or she wants to talk about. It doesn’t always have to be about cancer. Chances are your friend wants to feel as normal as possible. Tell him or her about something funny that happened. Allow your friend to talk about cancer if he or she wants. And save the pity eyes and voice.
Keep the focus on your friend, not you. Don’t lose your focus. Avoid talking about your headache, backache, etc. This isn’t about you. And as bad as you feel, he or she feels worse and may not be interested in hearing about how hard this has been on your life. Don’t put him or her in the position of having to comfort you. Only ask questions if you truly want to hear the response.
Just listen. Sometimes just being there to listen—really listen— is the best thing you can do.
Let the person with cancer talk without interrupting. You don’t always have to have all the answers, just a sympathetic ear. He or she may not want to talk at all, and would rather sit quietly. So it’s okay to sit in silence.