When somebody in my network gets cancer I often get a call. People want to find a survivor with experience to relate to. But even though I have gone through cancer myself, finding the right words is never easy. I have, however, learned over time from talking to other cancer patients, so here are my tips on what to say. Sadly many of us were told unhelpful things by well meaning people, so I'll start with what not to say and then go over what to say instead.
As usual, every situation is different so please use your own judgement. There are no absolutes when it comes to giving care! Some will want to chat and others won't, so above all, follow your friend's lead.
What Not To Say To A Friend With Cancer
1. "How Can I Help?". Instead, offer direct suggestions of help, such as: "May I drop off some food for you tonight?" or "Let me babysit the kids" or "Can I drive you to treatment?". Many people with cancer don't want to impose, and many more are dealing with so much that it's hard to even think of how you might be involved. With a direct suggestion they'll know you mean it, and can easily respond without the extra burden of thinking of suggestions on your behalf.
2. "I know you'll make it, don't worry". This one line has brought me, and another friend I know, to anger and tears. It's a simple, positive and affirming line, and we both knew it was well meant. But the reality is that you, as the friend, don't really know that I, the cancer patient, won't succumb, and the words come off as dismissive and full of false optimism. The line made me feel that my friend didn't understand how I viewed the diagnosis, and that they wouldn't be there to support me as a result. Instead, try "You are strong, and I'll support you through this" or "I hope it'll be ok". You can also start a conversation instead with "How are you feeling?".
3. "I know so-and-so who got cancer and xyz happened." If xyz isn't a positive thing, definitely don't say this! I know the first thing that'll pop into your head is to try to relate to your friend by sharing a story, but nobody with cancer wants to hear about how your grandma died of the same cancer, or how your other friend is getting horrible complications from chemo. And even if it is a positive story, watch out that it doesn't end up being about your story and not theirs. Instead, bring up a connection if it could be helpful, such as "My aunt just went through this same treatment, would you like to chat with her about how she handled side effects?". Or, let them know you're familiar with cancer because you've experienced supporting somebody else.
4. "I know how you feel". Do you really know how your friend feels? Even if you had cancer before, everybody's experience and reactions are different. Saying this line might discount your friend's real fears, concerns, sadness or pain. Instead, try a line like "I know you must be going through a lot", or "This must be a tough time for you".
5. "You look horrible" or "You've lost weight" or "What happened to your fingernails?" or any other commentary on their appearance in relation to cancer. Your friend probably already knows how they look, and are self conscious about it. No need to potentially embarrass them with comments.
6. "I know what you should do" or "You must see this professional" or any advice without your friend's permission. Your friend may be getting lots of unsolicited advice and it can cause unnecessary stress just to consider everybody's opinions. There are a lot of different approaches to cancer therapy and response, so try to be supportive of your friend's personal choices instead of preaching.
What To Say To A Friend With Cancer
1. "I'm not sure what to say". If this is genuinely how you feel (and many of us feel this way), it's great to admit that up front. Your friend will know that you're well meaning and your honestly will hopefully trigger a similar response in your friend to share what they're feeling.
2. "How are you?" or "I'm here if you want to talk". My personal beef with cancer greeting cards that have the one line swear words like "F@ck cancer" is that the card seems to be talking to the cancer more than to the person. Your friend likely needs somebody to talk to, and the best way to do that is to engage in conversation starters, then really listen. And just because cancer has hit doesn't mean you should stop talking about everything else. If you and your friend's "thing" is basketball or hiking or chess, don't stop connecting on those shared interests! It'll help your friend maintain something familiar while giving them a break on hard conversations.
3. "I'm sorry to hear you're going through this"or "This must suck". Simply acknowledging that cancer is not great news is a good first step. As much as cancer can be a "gift wrapped in thorns", nobody sits there wishing for it to come.
4. "What are you planning on doing?" or a similar question that can help you learn about the situation. It's hard to help if you don't understand what's going on, so try to educate yourself first. Here's a great list of things you can expect from the American Cancer Society, covering both physical and emotional changes your friend may go through.
5. "I care about you" or "I'm thinking of you". Anything that shows you care is great. Knowing that there's a community of people around me who care is what brought smiles to my face when I was diagnosed. It allowed me to feel that I can open up and be transparent about what I'm going through.
6. "You are beautiful" and "I love you". I have met many cancer patients who no longer feel beautiful through treatment and the result can be brutal. Some feel that they are no longer are worthy of love, or feel ashamed to be seen, or feel that they've lost themselves. Words that can reinforce your friend's value, especially their important role in your life, will go a very long way.
Actions Count Too
Of course, not everything needs to be expressed with words. Your actions will matter a lot to your friend too! Consider these other ways to express your love and support.
1. Silence. No words can be ok! Just sharing a moment together in silence can be meaningful too, especially if your friend is tired.
2. Hugs, smiles, other body language. When I think back to my own cancer experience one of the things that I remember most is this one nurse who held my hand before my mastectomy. I was cold, scared, and the waiting was long, and my husband was held back waiting in another area. The nurse was probably busy and had other things to do but that one gesture meant so much. So if you're at a loss for words, try a smile or a hug!
3. Sending content. If cracking jokes or cheering people up isn't your thing, try borrowing somebody's else's words. I had a friend who sent me her list of favorite comedians to watch and it brought me much needed laughter. Books, meditation content, or music are all great things to consider sending.
4. Help out directly. Nothing says you care more than you showing up to be support. That can be sending food, helping with housekeeping, driving to and from treatment, or supporting the primary caregiver with their needs so they can give more to the cancer patient. This is a meaty enough topic to warrant a whole other guide so I'll save all the tips for that.
Still Need Help?
If you have a question about what to say, drop a line in the comments below and I'll do my best to share my perspective as a cancer patient. And remember to check out our cancer care boxes if you want to show your friend how much you care. The boxes are designed to promote your friend's health, and we'll customize your greeting card with whatever you want to say.