What to say when you’re not sure what to say

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Advice for finding the words when talking to a loved one about cancer

It can be hard to find the right words to reach out to a friend or loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes the fear of saying the “wrong” thing or upsetting the person can lead us to say nothing at all. But it’s important to fight the urge to keep quiet; most people with cancer say that support from their loved ones is a hugely important part of their healing process. Though there is no one-size-fits-all approach, below are some suggestions to help you start the conversation.

BREAK THE ICE

This can be as simple as asking how the person is doing. Open-ended questions work best, as they let the person with cancer direct the conversation. Other simple suggestions: “I’m really sorry you’re going through this” or “I don’t really know what to say, but I want you to know I care about you.”

LET THEM TAKE THE LEAD

Most people with cancer will offer up the details they are comfortable sharing. Some people are more private than others. They may redirect the conversation or become quiet. These are cues that the person may not be ready or willing to open up about their experience.

JUST LISTEN

Try not to make assumptions about how the person is feeling or what they want to hear. Being present and listening are often the most important things you can do to support someone with cancer.

DON’T COMPARE APPLES AND ORANGES

Try to avoid giving advice or sharing the experiences of others you know who have had cancer unless the person specifically asks. No two people—or cancer experiences—are exactly alike.

TREAT THEM WITH KINDNESS, NOT PITY

Most people with cancer don’t want to be treated differently or be defined by their illness. Don’t be afraid to share events and updates in your own life just as you normally would. Continue to include them in social events, work projects and plans, but try to be understanding and flexible if they aren’t able to keep the commitment.

OFFER TO HELP IN SPECIFIC, CONCRETE WAYS

People with cancer usually need help, and they usually hate asking for it. Offering up assistance with specific tasks can remove the burden of having to make requests. For example, “Can I drive you to your chemo appointment next week?” usually works better than “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.”

KEEP IN TOUCH

Continue to check in and stay connected, both during and after cancer treatment. Sometimes people assume that everything goes “back to normal” for the person with cancer once treatment ends. However, this can actually be a very vulnerable and emotionally challenging time for the person, who may be struggling with issues like long-term side effects or fear of recurrence. Continuing to express care and concern during this period can be tremendously helpful.

Kailie Sullivan, LCSW, OSW-C has been an oncology social worker since 2009. She is a member of both the Association of Oncology Social Workers and the Association of Pediatric Oncology Social Work. Sullivan currently works as the Youth and Family Services Manager at the Dempsey Center in Lewiston.

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