What to Say to a Friend with Cancer
Virtually everyone is touched by cancer—whether you are a patient, family member, friend, colleague or caregiver. We all want to demonstrate our care and concern without being intrusive. We wonder: What should we say? What should we do? How can we help?
For the past decade, I have researched the answers to these three questions, gathering wisdom from hundreds of cancer survivors, and tapping the expertise of over forty professionals. Here are five important things I learned in writing When Cancer Strikes a Friend: What to Say, What to Do, and How to Help.
- First and foremost, always remember that cancer is not who your friend is, but what your friend is experiencing. Cancer may color a patient’s life, but no one wants to be defined by his or her disease. Strive to avoid making cancer the centerpiece of conversations or your relationship. People diagnosed with cancer are people first– people with families, jobs, community responsibilities—and cancer!
- Make small changes in the way you phrase every day communications. Asking “How are you?” may require more information than a survivor wishes to share. Instead try, “How are you doing today?” Furthermore, no survivor wants the pity embedded in “I’m soooooooooo sorry you’re sick.” Instead say, “I’m sorry you have to go through this!”
- Survivors ask that you be in touch, and stay in touch—from the time you first learn of a friend’s diagnosis, through treatment and beyond. The cancer experience isn’t over when treatment concludes. One of the most difficult times for many survivors is the post-treatment phase of the journey. This is a time when patients must adapt to a fluctuating “new normal” including new body images and new ways of eating, sleeping or moving. Furthermore, survivors often feel “in limbo” unable to confirm successful treatment until months, even years, of continued good health.
- Because cancer is the ultimate out-of-control experience, look for ways to help without usurping a patient’s sense of control or independence. When you provide nitty-gritty everyday help, ask for patients’ suggestions on how they’d like things done. Invite them to kibitz as you prepare a meal, put groceries away or help with the kids. Before bringing a meal, call to say, “What tastes good today?” (And always ask if patients have any dietary restrictions before bringing meals or snacks).
- Saying “I’ll do anything” is not really helpful. Instead be specific, e.g., “I’m available on Tuesday to watch the kids or drive you to treatment.” Give your patient-friend time to consider your offer of help, saying “think about it and I’ll call back in a few days.” When you call back, be willing to accept “no” for an answer. Circumstances change and today’s unwanted help may become necessary, later.
When you want to offer help effectively and appropriately, you will need to:
- Learn about the cancer experience and how to best respond
- Communicate well
- Assess carefully what help is truly wanted and needed
- Step forward to say, “I’m here for you and I’m here to help!”