Health & Wellness

'I'm here for you': What to say (and not say) to a cancer patient

For someone diagnosed with cancer, certain words can be comforting or hurtful. Dr. Dale Atkins and cancer survivors shared advice on talking to people facing the disease. Keep in mind, everyone is different. What may work for one person may not work for others. 

Let them know you care 
You can't keep reassuring them that "everything will be OK" — but you can assure them you will go through this process together.

Be as normal as possible 
Try to include the person in as many plans you can and alter the plans if he or she can't join you. Don't be afraid to give a hug, foot massage or a manicure, if that's natural and part of your friendship. 

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Be open-minded 
Many people often say "congratulations" after the person finished chemotherapy, but it may not always be a good thing. Instead of saying "let's celebrate," ask, "how do you feel now that chemo is over?" 

Be careful with stock phrases
There are certain stock phrases that people seem to say in tough times, such as "everything happens for a reason."

This is generally not a great response when someone is diagnosed with cancer. People may feel this way after they go through it, but let them come to their own conclusions. 

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Offer your opinion, only when they ask 
This isn't about you. You can listen without always feeling that you need to respond. Don't relay terrible stories about people with cancer who have died. 

Don't be judgmental about therapy
Even if you don't agree with a treatment plan, be supportive anyway. 

Relate your own experiences to them
If something was helpful in your own personal experience, it's OK to share it. You can say: "There's a bunch of us who love to cook. When I was sick, that was really helpful for me. Would that be helpful for you?"

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Listen 
If in doubt whether to listen or share your thoughts, ask the person! 

You could say, "I have some thoughts about this, do you want to hear them? Is this a good time? Maybe I can write them down and you can read about them another time."

Offer practical help
Say, "let me know what I can do to help" and offer the person practical errands you can do. Try to schedule them. 

  • Watching child or children one afternoon
  • Hiring someone to clean the house
  • Driving to their next appointment

Respect privacy
Don't talk about a friend or loved one's cancer unless given the OK. Cancer is NOT all there is to someone.

And keep calling
Stay in touch, because a cancer illness can last a long time. Send cards/notes/emails regularly, to let that person know you're thinking of him or her. 

Not many words are needed, but rather the knowledge there are people who care and are thinking of you. Keep asking to do something, or just do it. 

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