“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you have cancer.”
Someone you care about has just heard a doctor say these words, and then he or she turns to you for emotional support. Naturally, you want to offer words of comfort. What should you say? Better yet, what shouldn’t you say?
It’s helpful to think about what a person with cancer might feel. First of all, there’s the range of psychological reactions to hearing the diagnosis: denial, anger, guilt and fear. Then there are the physical challenges of facing chemotherapy, radiation and/or surgery, and the possibilities of disability, disfigurement and reoccurrence.
And don’t forget about spiritual disorientation, reflected in such thoughts as “Why did this happen to me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?”
A person with cancer sets out on a very personal journey. Therefore, it’s important to put aside all expectations of what that person needs to hear. According to the Rev. David Carl, Executive Director of Pastoral Care and Education at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C., “We have to get beyond our biases and our judgments about how others ought to experience and respond to crises such as cancer.”
On the other hand, you needn’t agonize over the actual words to use. As Carl suggests, “An alternative is to be curious, interested and draw out from [your loved ones] more fully how their thoughts and feelings are serving or dis-serving them.”
Four Supportive Strategies
When in doubt about how to talk to someone who has cancer, try the following strategies:
Listen first, then talk. By doing this, you might hear important clues as to what kinds of responses your loved one needs to hear from you.
Speak to the whole person. Remember that a person with cancer is much more than his or her disease. Granted, cancer is now a huge part of your loved one’s life, but it doesn’t cancel out the rest of who he or she is. Keep relating to the other parts—the interests, skills, talents, goals, memories, habits, humor and personality—that still make up the person you love.
Be gentle with yourself. Know that you’re trying to do the right thing in what you say and how you say it. If you find that you’ve said something inappropriate or upsetting, apologize, restate your love and support and move on.
Don’t be afraid of silence or physical contact. Sometimes there’s nothing that can or should be said in response to your loved one’s anxiety, anger or grief. You can still be a powerful witness of that pain and an advocate for healing through attentive silence, and maybe a hug or loving touch of your hand.
Most of all, take heart. The reality of cancer need not come between you and your desire to help someone with the disease. “No matter the stage of cancer,” says Carl, “when loving and supportive stories are recounted, inspirational songs are sung and love-packed communication is afforded, there is healing in the room.”
You can be a powerful catalyst for that healing—just by speaking from a place of love.
Want to Know More?
The American Cancer Society has produced a free, downloadable, 13-page pamphlet, "Listen With Your Heart," that offers many helpful strategies for supporting a loved one through the cancer journey from diagnosis through treatment and beyond.
For specific examples of appropriate alternatives to inappropriate statements, check back Thursday to read "What to Say (and Not Say) to Someone Who Has Cancer."
Jeanette Leardi is an instructor of journaling, memoir-writing, personal mythmaking and storytelling. A longtime freelance writer and editor, her publishing experiences also include staff positions at Newsweek, Life, People and Condé Nast Traveler magazines, and The Charlotte Observer. Visit her at jeanetteleardi.com.
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