Tag Archives: cancer

What to say to a person who has cancer


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.


Porta-Cath Removal


The port came out on Tuesday.

This feels like another little victory for me; it means that chemo is officially finished.

It was a doctor’s office procedure done under a local anesthetic.  I was a nervous wreck. I thought he would at least give me some “don’t-give-a-shit” medication but all he did was numb the general area of my port, then made an incision, cut the two stitches holding the port in place, and pulled the thing out. He and the nurse talked to me about this and that throughout the procedure, which did help to calm me. I had to think about something other than what he was doing. He asked me if I wanted to see the port in place, before he took it out; naturally I said no. He showed it to me once it was out. It looked like the button for a doorbell, but with a long, thin tube hanging from it. Three minutes of pressure (well, it was at least that; the clock in the room had stopped!) and some stitches, and he released me into the wild. The stitches are the dissolving kind, so I don’t have to go back.

I didn’t feel anything — until the anesthetic wore off about 11 pm. That’s when the incision started to hurt. It bothered me all night and half of yesterday. It’s OK now. I’ve been working on finding a place to live in my new job city, and sitting here at the computer is not as uncomfortable as it was yesterday.

Next week, I see my oncologist, and that will mark the end of this phase of my cancer journey. Then it’s just growing my hair back and adjusting to a new job in a new state.

Weird Dream


I had the strangest dream last night. Well, technically, it was early this morning.

In the dream, my 90 year old grandmother was dating this Italian guy with black hair and dark eyes. The guy was in his 40s. Everyone in the family was freaking out because they figured this guy must be up to no good. Why would a middle-aged guy date such an elderly woman?

I went upstairs to talk to my grandmother about it. On the way up, I ran into my cat. Telepathically (remember, this is a dream) my cat said that the guy was probably trying to get my grandmother to put him in her will. That seemed like a reasonable assumption to me. I went into my grandmother’s room, and the guy was there, sitting at her feet and talking to her while she sat in her rocker, crocheting like she always did. It seemed pretty innocent, but I was skeptical.

In reality, my grandmother was 91 when she passed away in 1985. My cat, the one from the dream, passed away a few years ago. She was an old cat, too. I didn’t recognize the Italian guy so for all I know, he might also be dead.

NOTE: I’m not requesting interpretations. Just threw it out there as a head scratcher.  Anyone who might want to comment, leave off all the URLs and links (I don’t allow advertising on this site) and I might consider posting your comment.