What to say to a person who has cancer

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Your friend, colleague, aunt or sister was just diagnosed with cancer. What do you say to her?

Sometimes you mean to say something kind and sensitive, but it comes out all wrong. It would be great if someone would give you some idea of what is the right thing to say, that will convey how you really feel (or how you know you should feel.)

This week, CNN.com posted an article, “Finding the right words to comfort cancer patients.” The article was part of the promotion of a new book by Dr. Bernadine Healy, identified in the article as a brain cancer survivor. She has written a book on what she calls “cancer etiquette.” (Coincidentally, this article was posted only days after I posted “what not to say to a cancer patient.” ) Dr. Healy’s intentions are good; however, her suggestions on what to say are based on her personal experience alone. Here are some thoughts and ideas about things you can say, and they come from the experience of hundreds of women who have survived breast cancer, and who are in every stage of treatment, from diagnosis to several years post-chemo.

There are some things you can say that we will love hearing. Sincerity is good, and we can tell. If you offer to help, for example, be sure you mean it. We do appreciate genuine offers of help. If your friend or loved one tells you, “I have cancer,” and you don’t know what to say, it’s usually better to say something honest. Here are some ideas of the kinds of things we don’t mind hearing.

“That sucks. I’m sorry you have to go through this.”

Cancer does suck, and this and its more polite variations acknowledge our feelings (we certainly think it sucks).

It seems to me that “that sucks” and the more polite phrasing “I’m sorry that you have to go through this” are really about the only safe things to say. . .

I wish more people had said “you know what, this sucks and you do not not deserve to go through this ordeal!”

“You’re right, this sucks and you have EVERY reason to be upset.”

“This must be very painful for you.”

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2007 after having ovarian cancer 5 and a half years ago. The best thing a friend said to me when she phoned me upon hearing was:

“I’m mad. It’s not fair!”

It was so nice of her to be so mad on my behalf. With both cancers I never said “Why me.” I never felt sorry for myself. My only concern was that I remain on this earth for my children. So it was great that someone else said it and genuinely felt it for me.

I care about you.”

Any variation of this, when sincerely expressed, is welcome.

Call me and offer to help me with grocery shopping, a dinner, or maybe offering to vacuum a room, or send me a card in the mail.

I would like to hear, “I know this journey is very challenging, but I am here to support you in whatever you need.”

I wish people knew how much comfort it would give me, even if all they managed to do was send a card or an email that said, “We just wanted you to know that we are thinking about you.”

That’s it. Such a simple phrase. Yet, so many people will not call or write because they don’t know what to say. They don’t have to say anything complicated or profound. Some days, all I need to know is that they have not forgotten about me.

Come to see me at the hospital after my surgery. Tolerate my pain and just hold me while I cry. Look into my eyes and wait for a real response after asking how I am. Friends that live far away can send an email that says “thinking of you.”

Let me talk about how afraid I am – of surgery, pain, chemo, losing my hair, my future health, etc…. instead of cutting me off with “oh but I know you are gonna be just fine!” I wish they’d say “I don’t’ blame you, I’d be scared too”. Yeah I’m “tough” at times & have a “great attitude” – at times…. But I’m scared & depressed at times too!

Can I do anything for you? Do you need help cleaning?

Women, especially, would LOVE to have some help. Offer to help clean, help with the kids, cook dinner or clean up after dinner, empty the dishwasher, do the laundry. These everyday things need to be done even when we are in chemo and are too sick to do them ourselves. Whether we let on about it or not, if we are in chemo, we are very sick. Most of the time the side effects, like nausea, pain and fatigue, keep us from doing the things our family, culture and society expects us to continue to do. Imagine trying to do the infamous “second shift” when your legs are hurting so bad that you cannot stand for more than a few seconds at a time. Remember, often our side effects “go away” just in time for our next treatment. Even weeks after our last chemo treatment, we will feel the same side effects we felt after our first. Unfortunately, they don’t magically go away just because it was our last treatment (and how we wish that were true!)

I wish someone had cleaned my house. I live with a teenaged daughter, an elderly father, and two adult brothers who don’t know a mop from a broom. My older sister, who lives far away, read them the riot act when I was diagnosed…how they should step up and pick up, but it did little good. They would just leave things until I felt better.

How about a gift certificate for a cleaning service? I just didn’t feel like cleaning, and it made me depressed how dirty my home was.

Talk about something other than cancer or how I feel. Sometimes all we want is a little distraction. Let’s talk about you for a while. Let’s talk politics. Let’s talk about your trip to Europe or Pittsburgh. Let’s talk about the cat or the parakeet. Let’s gossip about the neighbors. I think about cancer from the time I get up in the morning to the time I go to bed. Let’s talk about something else for a while.

Tell me something that is going on with you, so i have something to think about. However, please don’t go on and on about how great life is and how wonderful things are.

One thing someone did that was GREAT was send me an e-mail inviting me to come over and play with his new puppy. NO talk of cancer, just a good romp with a playful licking puppy.

Respect my wishes to be alone; allow me some time to myself. Sometimes we want to be left alone. Sometimes it’s because we feel like crap physically; fatigue is a common side effect of chemo. Being with others can be a real drain on our limited energy. Sometimes we just need alone time.

I wanted to be left alone…I hate to cry, I hate to worry my family…Im always the strong one that pickups after everyone else and I NEEDED to be alone…..I needed to be able to sort my feelings and cry.

I felt selfish doing it, but I told my family I needed to not be part of the family stuff, not be involved it anything, I just needed time to think, cry, adjust, learn who the new me was going to be. I did spend more time with my husband, cats, and did a lot of reading and thinking. I really appreciated that my family honored my wishes on this. Alone isn’t for everyone, but it suited me the best, I think.

What do you say, then, to a person who has cancer? Sincerity is best. Honesty is best. The best things to say are expressions of caring and concern, words that acknowledge and support what the cancer survivor is feeling and thinking, recognizing the hell that she is going through and her pain and suffering. True expressions of love and concern are always welcome. Sincere offers of help that are followed up. Sometimes, just a hug.

Help us to laugh, or let us cry when we need to. Give us our space when we need it. Respect our wishes to be alone or to be with others, as we choose.

If you don’t know what to say, just say so: “I don’t know what to say.” We understand.

10 responses »

  1. Thanks this was very helpful! I need to hear more about what to do when s loved one is facing possible death before hitting old age.

  2. This is exactly what I was looking for. I have a friend who was diagnosed to have a breast cancer. It will help. Thanks

  3. Your website is an inspiration. I have a friend with cancer and didn’t know what to say. I found your website and it was really helpful. Thank you so much.

  4. I spent the last 4 years going through this with my Mom. It is the hardest thing to do. It’s good to see people sharing their struggles because it is very difficult to know how to help from someone else’s perspective. This will help a lot of people.

  5. Pingback: What NOT to Say to Someone with Cancer | martha phelps studio

  6. A year later, your website is still helping people. I have a friend who was has lung cancer, even though she never smoked. I didn’t know what to say. This has helped me tremendously.

  7. Thank you so much for this! Has helped me so much with my friend who has just been diagnosed and I feel I am too scared to see him but this has helped so much!

  8. 3 and 1/2 years later, this website is still helping people. Thanks for the ideas. I did most of them…but still wasn’t sure…now I know what my cousin is going through even just a little.

  9. Going threw chemo for me was the hardest thing to do , I am a strong women but no strenght would help be go threw this with flying colors ..I was so sick , hospital I felt like I was dying …I wanted to be left alone and not see anyone , The family wanted me to go stay with them but I needed my bed my things my familiar surrounding…..and you know what it got better …I didnt think at the time it would…. Being along for me was my coping way……I told every one If I need something I will call and ask….every one respected that ……One friend got me though , she told me she needed me and wanted to come over ….and I didnt hesitate …I told come on over ….she surprised me with a meal and a glass of wine ….that touched me so deeply …..love you TIna !
    I Am not back at work and doing amazing ,,,,,you have to take this one day at a time and somedays one second at a time …..Good luck every one ….you are in my prayers xo

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