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What to Say to a Cancer Survivor

by Kathy Cawthon

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You’ve learned that a friend or family member has been diagnosed with cancer. You want to help, to do something, anything, to make this difficult experience easier for him, but you don’t know what to do. You don’t even know what to say. Here are a few things cancer survivors like to hear.

“I can help.” It’s a statement, not a question. Cancer survivors can be reluctant to answer the question “What can I do to help?” for a number of reasons. Most of the time, it’s because they’re reeling from the diagnosis itself or disappointing test results, or not feeling well because of treatment. During times like these, coming up with an answer to the “what-can-I-do-to-help” question actually creates more stress for the survivor. Other reasons survivors wave off this question are not wanting to impose their illness on others and not wanting to feel helpless. It can be humiliating to a survivor to admit that there are things he can’t do for himself. That’s why it’s important for you to step up, take the lead, and state with confidence, “I can help.” Then do it. (See below for suggestions.)

“Whatever you’re feeling is okay.” Survivors are often hesitant to talk about some of the things that are worrying them. They’re afraid they might sound crazy if they tell anyone or that they will upset those closest to them by bringing up difficult subjects. Let the survivor know that she can talk to you about whatever is troubling her. And when she does, don’t change the subject. Sidestepping an issue because it makes you uncomfortable only makes the survivor feel more alone and isolated. Listen and reassure her that her thoughts and feelings are safe with you. If she needs to discuss issues that require more than just a friendly listener, be honest and offer to help her contact the appropriate professional.

Author of Article photo

Kathy Cawthon and her husband, Roger

“I’m here for you.” Remind your cancer survivor friend or family member that you’re there for him whether or not he feels like talking. Work on becoming comfortable with silence. Being able to be still and quiet with another person is a powerful form of support and often more comforting than any words you could say.

“You can cry with me.” It’s not unusual for survivors to feel they need to be the “strong” ones and the ones to comfort others. If you can tell that she is fighting back tears during your visit, shut the door and say, “It’s okay to cry, and you can cry with me.” Helping your friend or family member release pent-up tears is one way you can help her move toward emotional healing, which is an essential part of the recovery process.

And if she cries, it’s okay if you cry, too. Sharing grief and pain with another person in this way is yet another stride toward healing for both parties. It’s best, though, to postpone a visit if your own tears are near the surface and the survivor is having a good day. You certainly don’t want to bring her down when she is up.

“I won’t leave you.” Cancer can be like a roller coaster ride with lots of ups and downs. There will be good days and not-so-good days. Be very honest when determining the level at which you can be involved, but whatever you decide, tell your loved one you won’t leave him, no matter how bumpy the ride.

Things You Can Do to Help

  • Take the kids out for dinner and a movie, on an all-day outing, or a weekend getaway.
  • Pick up prescriptions and do the grocery shopping.
  • Take care of routine maintenance on the family cars.
  • Organize friends and neighbors to take turns bringing meals. Plan meals carefully, taking into account any diet restrictions the survivor might have.
  • Play with the family pets and offer to take them in for checkups or grooming.
  • Put holiday decorations up, or take them down and put them away.
  • Pitch in and help with the housework and yard work. If you sense your help in these areas makes the survivor and/or family uncomfortable, organize a fundraiser or take up a collection to pay for professional services.
  • If you are truly at a loss for ways to help, ask the survivor’s family members for suggestions.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Kathy Cawthon and her husband, Roger, are 12-year cancer survivors. They offer free online support to other survivors and caregivers through their website

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2008.