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.
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.
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.’”
Better Ways to React
Keeping this advocacy role in mind will help you find better ways to talk to someone with cancer. Given that a person with cancer may feel vulnerable, angry, scared, confused and reluctant to ask for help, consider these examples of alternate things to say:
Instead of saying . . .
You might say . . .
|"How are you?"||"How are you feeling?"|
|"I know how you feel."||"I don't know how you feel, but I'd like to, if you'd care to tell me."|
|"You'll get through this."||"I'll be with you as you go through this."|
|"Don't get upset."||"You have the right to be upset. Is there something we can do together that might help you feel better?"|
|"I think you should..."||"Would you consider...?"|
|"It's God's will that this happened."||"No one knows why anyone gets cancer. Let's work together to help you do what you need to do to recover."|
You can also download the free pamphlet from the American Cancer Society, “Listen With Your Heart,” which offers helpful strategies for supporting a loved one coping with cancer from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.
When in doubt, it’s often better to ask a question than to make a statement. Carl says that advocates give cancer patients “a safe space to express whatever they need to express and to be however they need to be.”
There’s no question that talking with a person who has cancer can be challenging. But if you refrain from avoiding or advising and instead be an advocate, you may find that the right words come naturally.
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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