No matter who it is—a family member, a friend, or even just an acquaintance—when someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, it’s easy to become tongue-tied. You want to say the right thing, but what if it comes out wrong? You want to be there for her, but how? And often times, common platitudes and simple remarks can actually be hurtful or misguided. While everyone’s experience with cancer is unique, follow this advice on what statements to avoid and what to say instead.
Don’t say: “I can’t stop crying. I was up all night worrying about you.”
It’s important to not take over the person’s emotional roller-coaster. “Remember, the person who has the cancer has the cancer,” says Marleen Meyers, MD, a medical oncologist and director of the survivorship program at the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. You have every right to cry, but very often, she explains, you’ll see the people who have cancer trying to hold it together for those around them. But first and foremost, they need to take care of themselves at this time.
What to say instead: “I feel terrible you’re going through this. Feel free to cry with me, to talk, or not to talk. I’ll take my lead from you.”
Don’t say: “Just be grateful you don’t have (insert another form of) cancer.”
No matter what type of cancer you have and no matter the stage, it’s a life-altering diagnosis—even if it’s not immediately life threatening, shares Ann Pietrangelo, a 4-year cancer survivor and author of Catch That Look: Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Triple-Negative Breast Cancer. “You don’t need to be reminded that things can always be worse. Comparing cancers is not helpful.”
What to say instead: “Tell me about your (whatever type) cancer, if you’d like. I’d like to know more about what you’re going through.”
Don’t say: “You’re so strong.”
People diagnosed with cancer are bombarded with warrior imagery all the time, says Jenn McRobbie, a breast cancer survivor and author of Why Is She Acting So Weird? A Guide to Cultivating Closeness When A Friend is In Crisis. “We’re called ‘fighters,’ ‘warriors,’ and we’re told to ‘win the battle.’ This imagery may help some people feel more in control of their experience, but it can also make you feel like you’re doing it all wrong if you’re having a bad day.” Having others tell you “you’re so strong,” she explains, can sometimes make you feel like you can’t or shouldn’t show any vulnerability—that if you do, you’re weak or you might lose the battle.
What to say instead: “I admire how you’re handling this with such grace.” Grace doesn’t imply that the cancer survivor is strong or weak, says McRobbie. “It leaves the door open for the survivor to have good days and bad days.”
Don’t say: “At least you look skinny.”
Your friend may look different, but don’t point out physical changes. People with cancer are acutely aware of how much weight they have gained or lost, how much hair they have lost, or how pale they might look, advises Georgia Anderson, a manager of Palliative Care & Outpatient Social Work at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and a member of the palliative care team within the UC Cancer Institute. “Often, people grieve these changes in their physical appearance and do not need someone else pointing it out.”
What to say instead: Anderson suggests paying a genuine compliment, like “Your manicure looks great!” or tell the person how happy you are to see her, and leave it at that.
Don’t say: “Are you a smoker?”
“It is true that certain health behaviors increase the chances of being diagnosed with cancer, but now is not the time to place blame,” adds Anderson. She says that people who are diagnosed will often agonize about why they got the disease, and being asked about their health habits only rubs salt in the wound. “It is important to remember that there are many things that can contribute to a cancer diagnosis: genetics, environment, health behaviors, and sometimes dumb luck. In my career, I have worked with patients who never smoked, drank, or ate meat and still got cancer. If science could figure out why people get cancer, it could be eradicated.”
What to say instead: “You don’t deserve this,” or “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”
Don’t say: “My friend had the same cancer that you have. Let me tell you all about it.”
“Patients with cancer do not always want to know stories about a friend, relative, or a co-worker, especially if something bad happened, such as a reoccurrence or a complication,” says Randy Stevens, MD, director of radiation oncology at White Plains Hospital in New York. “The friend may mean to be helpful, but may make the patient unnecessarily anxious or less compliant with an important medicine.” (And that’s the last thing you’d want to be responsible for.)
What to say instead: “I think my friend had the same cancer. I know everyone’s cancer is different, but would you like me to put you in touch with her?”
Don’t say: “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.”
It sounds kind, but here’s why it’s not so great: “This just gives the person the homework of figuring out what you can do to help, then the burden of having to ask,” says Jennifer Glass, a writer and speaker who was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in 2013. Think about it: Would you want to have to make yet another decision, and one that causes someone else to go out of their way?
What to say instead: Glass suggests being specific, with as few decision points or action items as possible for the person. For example: “I’m going to make a meal for your family next week. I’ll bring it on Tuesday unless there’s a better day. I’m making lasagna unless there’s something else you prefer. Let me know if there’s anything you don’t eat.”
Don’t say: “I know how you feel.”
“Interestingly enough, even other cancer survivors don’t say this to each other because each cancer is different, each cancer experience is different, and each cancer survivor is different,” says McRobbie. “Often times people use ‘I know how you feel’ to try and express their empathy. But the truth of the matter is, you don’t know how he feels.”
What to say instead: “I can’t imagine how you feel.” McRobbie says your honesty and vulnerability to admit that this is new territory for you will open the door to communication—and your openness may encourage your friend to tell you exactly how he feels.
Don’t say: “I’ve heard that they can cure leukemia with modified AIDS virus cells now…”
Whenever someone said something like that to Kelly Jones*, she figured they were just trying to reassure her—but they didn’t know what kind of leukemia she had or if that was even an option for her. “Breakthrough treatments may be in the news, but they’re tough to actually receive unless you are in a trial. I’ve been in trials, but my doctors looked out for the ones I was eligible for,” she says.
What to say instead: Ask questions, like “Are you feeling good about your treatment? Are there any new medications or techniques that could be helpful?” Speak to the reality that the patient is facing.
Don’t say: Nothing.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a cancer patient who would rather have a friend not reach out at all than say the wrong thing. Simply put, don’t ignore the person. “A lot of people are afraid and don’t know what to say, but ignoring someone can make her feel isolated or alone. You’re much better off saying something,” says Meyers.
What to say instead: That you aren’t sure what to say, but you’re there for her—whether she wants to discuss it, cry about it, or forget about all about it for a while.
Via : prevention