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Finding the Right Words

What to say (and not to say) when someone you know has cancer

by Leslie Starsoneck

Wellness image

Some people want to know what the rules are for what to do or say to a friend, family member, or acquaintance who is facing cancer. While I suspect these rules vary wildly from individual to individual, here are my experiences of what’s helpful and what’s … not so helpful.

“My aunt/cousin/neighbor had/has ____ cancer.”
When I was first diagnosed and sharing the news with friends and family, I didn’t want to hear about other people they knew who had cancer. It made me feel like I needed to be empathetic toward that person, who was usually a stranger, or sympathetic to the person telling me, at a time when I had trouble mustering much energy beyond sharing what was happening to me. And it abruptly cut off the conversation about me and made it about someone else. I also quickly learned that these disclosures rarely had any value to me medically because of how very different each person is in terms of the stage, nature, and treatment of their disease.

Even if you’re at a loss for words, say something.

Author of Article photo

Leslie Starsoneck

Ask whether the person facing cancer is comfortable sharing the details of his or her prognosis and treatment. If the person tells you, it may give you an idea of how you can help. On the other hand, if you ask and the person offers only the vaguest details (either because he or she isn’t ready to tell you or because things can change in the factfinding and treatment stages of cancer), then you should accept that person’s bid for privacy and not persist or ask friends or family to provide this information.

Even if you’re at a loss for words, say something. Send an e-mail or a card. Say that you’re at a loss for words, but don’t do nothing or ignore the elephant in the room by talking about everything else. It says to the person, “You shouldn’t have told me this because I can’t handle it.”

Set realistic expectations.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that people in your life don’t suddenly change their personalities because you have cancer. There may be instances where people you thought might not step up, do. Or people you thought you could rely on more heavily can’t be relied upon at all. But for the most part, these will be in line with what you knew to be true all along.

Be specific about what you’re offering to do and ask whether the person wants you to do it. This goes for little things, like doing their laundry, as well as big things, like publicly honoring them in a race or cancer fundraiser.

Include the caregiver.
Whether it’s helping with some of their responsibilities (running errands to the pharmacy or the grocery store), delivering items for them to pass some of their “down time” with (magazines, videos, etc.), or getting them out of the house, it will shore up the care they’re able to provide.

Do what you say you’re going to do.
And don’t say you’ll do something you won’t or can’t do. If you tell me, “I’ve been so busy …” it tells me that everything you did instead of what you said you would do for me was more important. Better not to offer at all or simply to apologize for not following through.

It’s okay to say or do the wrong thing.
As long as what you say or do is based on genuine care and concern, it’s so much better to say or do the wrong thing than not to say or do anything at all.

It doesn’t end with recovery from surgery.
Plenty of things can follow surgery – fear of recurrence, the inevitable adjustments to medication, or learning how to accept the new way their body looks and feels. Acknowledging the many phases of the journey and providing ongoing support through them is very helpful.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Leslie Starsoneck is a breast cancer survivor living in North Carolina with her husband, Paul.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2009.