Cancer is a difficult subject. Whether it is you, someone you love, or even just a friend of a friend, people can be very uncomfortable addressing cancer. In the past, cancer was only spoken about in whispers. Even today, with the advancements in treatments and increased survival rates, the majority of people have no idea how to handle the topic.
Everyday more and more people seem to be discovering they have some form of cancer, the frequency in cases seemly getting higher. The odds are, at some point, someone you know has or likely will be diagnosed with cancer. Many of those who have cancer or have survived it all have stories of uncomfortable, upsetting, and sometimes, just plain awkward interactions they have had with well-meaning individuals. In case a cancer diagnosis effects someone you care about, we want you to be prepared to communicate appropriately about this disease. Use our tips as a starting point but keep in mind that every person is different and every person experiences cancer differently.
It is not uncommon for people to ‘disappear’ when someone they know gets a cancer diagnosis. This is one of the worst things that you can do. A cancer diagnosis is isolating and lonely without the added stress of people avoiding them. If you are unsure of what to say, say “I don’t know what to say.” Be honest, let them know you are thinking of them, and ensure them that you are there for them.
The easiest way to know what is appropriate to talk about is to let the person with cancer set the tone. Follow their lead and talk about what they are comfortable with. There is a very good chance that they just want to feel normal and ignore their diagnosis for a bit. Tell them about something funny that happened at work. Talk about popular television shows you both like. Talk about whatever it is you normally would. They are still the same person.
If someone wanted to talk to you about the results of their blood work or if their cancer has spread, they’d tell you. Give the person the right to decide when and if they wish speak about their diagnosis and any other subject surrounding it. If you were not close enough to casually ask personal questions before, this may not be the ideal time to start.
If someone is comfortable speaking about their diagnosis, having someone there to listen, really listen to them, can be an incredible gift. Let them speak without interrupting. Sometimes the only thing someone needs is a sympathetic ear. If they would rather not speak at all, sit quietly with them. Give them the support they need, even if it is sitting silently with them. The simple presence of another can sometimes be all that they need.
Everyone can use some love and everyone enjoys knowing others care, those with cancer included! If they’re comfortable with it, give them a hug or hold their hand. Tell them of success stories of long-term cancer survivors. Surprise them with small things you think they’ll love, like their favorite drink, books and magazines you think they’ll enjoy, or a CD from their favorite band. Little things that will bring a smile to their face. If you have the time, offer your help with chores. A little help with the laundry, running errands, cleaning the house, or even just cooking a meal for them can go a long way.
Actions and words are powerful and one comment has the ability to instantly wreak someone’s good mood. Keep away from commenting on the physical appearance of those diagnosed, especially if it is negative. No one wants to discuss their hair falling out or that they look weak, they probably already know and certainly don’t want the reminder. Also stay away from bringing up any potential side effects that you know of. Acting overly grave and mournful only reminds them of their problems. Even using cliché words like “hero” and “battle” are great ways to put a damper on the mood. If they were to get worse, does it mean that it’s their fault? That they didn’t fight hard enough? Absolutely not! Try to put yourself into their shoes and ask yourself, “What would I want someone to say to me?”
Everyone goes through cancer differently, just like everyone’s cancer is different. What may help others is not guaranteed to always work. Try these tips and remember to show them you care and that you are there for them. Simply being a friend is sometimes the best gift you can give.
Written by D. Maves