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What to Say (and Not Say) to Someone Who Has Cancer

Can’t find the right words? Try these comforting ways to show you care.

October 13th, 2011

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What to Say (and Not Say) to Someone Who Has Cancer

Finding the right words to say to someone who has cancer is a Herculean task.

You don’t want to say something that might come across as insensitive, but by the same token, you don’t want to say that you understand what she or he is going through (even if you yourself have been there) since each person’s experience is so unique.

So rather than trying to predict exactly how you’ll respond to something your friend or loved one says or asks, it can be much more helpful to think about who you are in that person’s cancer journey to help you navigate this emotional territory.

MORE: How to Be There For Someone Who Has Cancer

The Best Role to Play 

Sometimes cancer patients find that a friend, a family member or even a partner might pull away out of fear, guilt or awkwardness. These avoiders tend to cut off the conversation (“It’s God’s will”) or minimize what the person is going through (“You’ll get over it”), leaving the cancer patient even more isolated and lonely.

On the flip side, some have the opposite reaction, taking charge as an adviser who makes inappropriate assumptions (“I know how you feel”) and gives unsolicited advice (“You really shouldn’t stay home so much”), believing he or she knows best as far as what needs to be done. While advisers often mean well, they deny cancer patients’ power to make their own decisions about how best to heal.

COLUMN: Preventing Cancer: The Facts & Myths by Dr. Oz & Dr. Roizen

Rather than being an avoider or adviser, consider being an advocate in your friend or loved one’s journey through cancer by being present, open and responsive to his or her feelings and requests.

The Reverend David Carl, executive director of Pastoral Care and Education at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C., says being an advocate is critical to finding the “right” words to say to someone who has cancer. "To assume the role of an advocate is to open up to whatever the other person is experiencing,” he says. “It's a commitment to being present; it is sending, both verbally and nonverbally, the clear message that ‘I want to be with you, I want to serve you.’”

MORE: Coping With Cancer, Beautifully

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