By 2020, almost one in two people (47 per cent) will get cancer at some point in their lives, which means that even if you don’t get diagnosed with cancer yourself, the sad likelihood is that someone you know will.
And when a friend or family member has cancer, it’s very hard to know what to say. Often, people feel uncomfortable so either make inappropriate comments or say nothing at all, neither of which are helpful for the person facing cancer.
Many cancer support groups have offered advice on talking to someone with cancer, including the Cancer Treatment Center of America, who shared a list of tips.
Here’s what you should never say:
1. “How are you?”
Although it might seem like a thoughtful, caring question, asking a cancer patient how they are can seem intrusive – what are they supposed to say?
2. Overly optimistic comments
When you have cancer, you don’t need a cheerleader. What’s more, upbeat comments like “You’ll be fine” can make a patient feel guilty if they can’t stay positive. Dr. Stan Goldberg, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer aged 57, explained that “False optimism devalued what was going on in my body.”
3. “At least you lost some weight!”
Joking about someone’s physical changes is not helpful.
4. Comparing to someone else’s cancer
Each cancer is different so even if your uncle did survive the disease, saying that won’t help.
5. “You’re lucky it’s not a worse type of cancer”
Although intended to be cheery, downplaying someone’s cancer will not make them feel good – there is nothing even remotely lucky about having cancer.
6. Asking about prognosis
It’s fine to discuss prognosis if the patient is forthcoming, but it’s better not to ask in case they don’t want to talk about it.
7. Your own feelings of distress
By all means, tell your friend you’re sorry they’re facing cancer, but try not to get too emotional or upset. And if you don’t know what to say, it’s best to say just that than avoid the person completely.
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So what should you say?
According to Dr. Goldberg, it’s most useful to offer concrete help. Don’t say “Let me know what I can do to help,” but rather “I’ll make dinner for you one day this week, what day works for you?”
Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, who has had a recurring cancer for more than two decades, agrees, explaining that it’s most helpful when people offer to do specific things like walking the dog or picking up food from the supermarket.
But more than anything, it’s most important just to listen to someone with cancer, not to talk. “Sometimes only a calm presence and compassionate listening are necessary,” said Dr. Goldberg.