You’re not alone if you don’t know what to say to someone who has cancer.
Most people don’t have any idea of what to say. So they choose to say nothing at all. In speaking with friends and family who have experienced this phenomenon, they tell me that saying nothing is actually worse than saying the wrong thing.
You might not know the person very well, or you may have a close relationship. The most important thing you can do is mention the situation in some way that feels comfortable for you. Show interest and concern, by using humor, empathy, or even anger. Sometimes the simplest expressions of concern are the most meaningful. And sometimes just listening is the most helpful thing you can do.
Respond from your heart! Here are some ideas:
- “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
- “I’m sorry to hear that you are going through this.”
- “How are you doing?”
- “If you would like to talk about it, I’m here.”
- “Please let me know how I can help.”
- “I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”
It’s can be a double edged sword. While it’s good to be encouraging, it’s also important not to show false optimism or tell the person with cancer to always stay positive. Doing these things might seem to discount their very real fears, concerns, or sad feelings. While tempting to say that you know how the person feels, it is probably best not to share those sentiments. Because unless you truly have experienced a cancer diagnosis yourself, you can not know exactly how any person with cancer feels.
Using humor can be an important way of coping. It can also be another approach to support and encouragement. Let the person with cancer take the lead; it’s healthy if they find something funny about a side effect, like hair loss or increased appetite, and you can certainly join them in a good laugh. This can be a great way to relieve stress and take a break from the more serious nature of the situation. But you never want to joke unless you know the person with cancer can handle it and appreciate the humor.
When the person with cancer looks good, let them know! Of course you should always avoid making comments when their appearance isn’t as good, such as “You’re looking pale,” or “You’ve lost weight.” It’s very likely that they’re acutely aware of it, and they can feel embarrassed if people comment on it.
Lastly, I have found it is usually best not to share stories about family members or friends who have had cancer. Everyone is different, and these stories may not be helpful. Instead, it’s OK to let them know that you are familiar with cancer because you’ve been through it with someone else. Then they can pick up the conversation from there.
It boils down to this….be authentic to your personality. If you are a jokester, make a well thought out witty quip. If you are spiritual….respond with soft spiritual word. . Express encouragement, offer support but pay attention to their signs and let them take the lead. Don’t ignore it because it makes you uncomfortable.