A cancer diagnosis can be devastating for almost anyone receiving this news. Technology and medical treatments may be improving day by day, but sometimes just looking at the long road to recovery may be exhausting for some.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What to Avoid Saying When Someone Tells You They Have Cancer
- What You Can Say to a Spouse or Partner
- What You Can Say to Another Close Family Member
- What You Can Say to a Friend
- What to Say When Someone Tells You They Have Terminal Cancer
- What to Say When Someone Tells You Their Cancer Has Returned
When someone you know has been recently diagnosed, you may need to become familiar with what to say and what not to say to someone with cancer. Support them with your love and companionship now more than ever. The following guide can help you navigate your way through this emotionally difficult time for you and your loved one.
What to Avoid Saying When Someone Tells You They Have Cancer
When someone you know and love confides in you that they've been diagnosed with cancer, you might want to carefully consider what you say. Even the most well-meaning comments can fall short or may even sound offensive to the recipient.
As frightening as it is to talk about a cancer diagnosis with your loved one, it can feel even more scary and lonely to them when those around them fall short of lending their support. One of the worst things you can do is not say anything at all. Even worse is withdrawing altogether because you're afraid you don't know what to say.
Opening up the conversation with your loved one can be as simple as asking them how they're feeling. Allow them adequate time to respond before moving on to talk about something else. You don't want to ask your loved one to fill you in on how they're doing and then not give them time to respond.
The conversation may feel awkward, but your loved ones must know that you care about them and are interested in how they're doing. Be careful not to interrupt them as they're talking, and avoid saying any of the following commonly wrong things to someone facing a cancer diagnosis.
Here are some words to avoid:
I know how you’re feeling. Unless you’ve also had to deal with a cancer diagnosis, you can’t possibly know how your loved one’s feeling. Statements like these are hurtful even though they’re well-intentioned because it diminishes your loved one’s struggles and experiences. No one can know exactly how someone else is dealing with the health issues they’re facing, and pretending to do so is not only insensitive but offensive.
You're going to be okay. No one knows how this will all end for your loved one. Telling someone that they'll be fine not only diminishes the severity of your loved one's cancer diagnosis but sounds condescending and dismissive. Your loved one may be up all night struggling with coping with the side effects of their treatments and medications. They don't need a cheerleader making statements that may end up being untrue. You can find other ways to be encouraging without sounding inconsiderate and thoughtless.
What are your odds of beating this? This question sounds so final and is one of the worst things you can ask someone who’s just been diagnosed with a possibly terminal condition. Not every person diagnosed with cancer will beat the odds of survival, just like not everyone diagnosed faces a terminal illness. This question is not only insensitive but may create additional stress for your loved one. Leave it up to them to tell you if they’re ready to have this conversation with you.
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What You Can Say to a Spouse or Partner
Your spouse or partner may rely on you in new ways to help them get through the upcoming challenges associated with their cancer treatment and recovery. A cancer diagnosis can leave anyone feeling scared or anxious. Regardless of how much reassurance their medical team has given them about recovery success rates, your spouse may be aware of the possibility that the treatments won’t work for them.
Be mindful that the diagnosis of cancer will be difficult for your partner to digest. It may take several days or weeks for them to come to terms with having cancer. You can support them with your words and actions by being there for them when they may be at their most vulnerable.
Here are some things that your spouse or partner would love to hear you say.
1. “I love you and I’m here for you.”
These simple words can go a long way in letting your spouse or partner know that you’re there for them and support them through what’s next in their journey.
It can be very reassuring knowing that someone is there to help you through life’s rough patches. They may be thinking that they’re a burden to you now that they’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Your reassuring words can give them hope.
2. “I’ll do my best to help you through this.”
This promise of support does two things: it promises your loved one that you’ll be there for them through it all, and it gives them hope without making promises of recovery. It’s important to keep hope alive so that they have something to hold onto when things feel rough. You’ll also save yourself from feeling guilty later on by being honest and not making false promises in the event treatment isn’t successful.
Doing the best that you can to help your loved one will go a long way in strengthening your relationship with them. Try not to be so hard on yourself and remember to take time for some self-care. You may want to seek out a support group of your own to help you in coping with a parent who has cancer, or another loved one who may be going through this.
3. “I’ll be here to take care of you.”
Hearing these words can make a huge difference in your loved one’s recovery. Knowing that you’ll be there to help them get up when they feel weak or even if they just feel frustrated can be relieving.
By saying aloud that you will help take care of them can alleviate some of the anxiety they may be feeling regarding their treatment and recovery.
4. “Let’s do this together.”
When you’re not quite sure how to reassure someone, these simple words say it all. They instantly give the impression that you will be their cheerleader and advocate for them when they need it most.
Doing things “together” translates as you’ll be there for them through thick and thin.
What You Can Say to Another Close Family Member
Being there for your close family members is important to not only them but to you as well. As we get older, the number of people we can rely on tends to drop off exponentially. People either fade away into their own lives or begin to die off. Having the support of family becomes even more important the older we get.
There are many ways in which you can support your loved one through their battle with cancer. Begin with saying the right things to them that will reassure them that they can count on you. Giving hope to someone that you’ll be there for them is a beautiful thing and may even be reciprocated if you’re ever the one in need.
5. “You can count on me for whatever you need.”
Saying this and meaning it are two very different things. Reassure your loved one that not only do you mean it but give them concrete examples of the things you’re willing to do for them.
If you can help take care of the household, be specific on what that means to you. If you’d rather help out financially, calculate what you can afford to give so that they have peace of mind.
6. “Let me take you to your appointments.”
Volunteering to drive them to their medical appointments can help alleviate the stress of getting there and back.
In addition, being present during treatments provides emotional support to your loved one. It’s important to have someone there to help them understand and digest any medical updates or changes to their treatment plan.
7. “Have you considered all outcomes?”
This question can help open up a critical dialogue in the event their treatment fails. If your loved one is a single parent, or otherwise without a partner, it’s important to start discussing options and the plan of action they may want you to take on their behalf.
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8. “Let’s go get some fresh air.”
An invitation to go out somewhere together gives the two of you time to talk about everything that’s happening. Let your loved one lead the conversation, but if they avoid talking about their diagnosis, gently steer in in that direction. You’ll need to know where their thoughts are and how they may see you handling things for them.
What You Can Say to a Friend
Close friends are a special gift. You can be one of your friend’s biggest supporters in their time of need as they deal with their cancer diagnosis.
There are so many things involved with getting treatment and in the recovery process that it’s hard to go at it alone. Be that friend others can count on to bring a smile to their face even when everything around them seems to be falling apart. Here are some things you can say to your friend to lighten their load:
9. “Let me go pick up something special for you.”
A gift is always welcome by almost anyone. Purchasing gifts for cancer patients is a thoughtful and loving way of showing them that you care. Give your gift giving some thought before heading out and just buying the first thing that you see on the shelf. Talk with your friend about what they need most right now.
It may surprise you to learn that they may be wanting a pedicure or manicure instead of another crossword puzzle book for their nightstand.
10. “I made us some lunch.”
Your friend may no longer be feeling up to getting together for weekly lunches after starting cancer treatments. Not only will they be feeling run down, but they’ll likely not be in the mood or have the energy to get dressed and be the happy and joyful friend they were even just a few weeks ago.
Save both of you the awkwardness of forcing a day out when it’s not the right time to do so. Your friend will likely not have much of an appetite, may feel nauseous, or may be too self-conscious to be seen out in public as they’re battling their disease. Preparing a favorite lunch to enjoy at home may be your new normal for the next few months.
11. “Tell me what you need.”
Asking for help is not easy for most people. When you invite this discussion, you’re sending the message that you want to help but may not know exactly what to do for your friend. They may be too embarrassed to tell you that they can no longer afford to pay their bills, or that they don’t have money to feed their children.
Cancer has a way of wreaking havoc in a person’s life. No one expects you to take up financial responsibility for your friend. You can be a great help to them if you help them connect with available resources in the community that can provide temporary assistance to them.
Start by making a few phone calls to see if you can get them the financial help they need. You can also help set up a crowdfunding account to help offset some of their expenses.
12. “Let’s have a movie night.”
Finding time to enjoy the things you used to before the cancer diagnosis is important. It’ll help keep your friend’s spirits up. It’s OK to laugh and have fun even in the middle of fighting cancer. Planning for an at-home movie night may help your friend get their mind off of their illness for a little while.
You don’t have to tip-toe around your friend’s cancer. It’s OK to talk about it and share with them how you’re both feeling about it. But there’s no rulebook that says your conversations have to always be so serious and somber. Reserve time for some fun and laughter.
What to Say When Someone Tells You They Have Terminal Cancer
Sometimes, you might receive sensitive information you'd rather not know or get, as when someone you hardly know tells you they're dying of cancer. Some people think sharing this information with strangers without a real explanation is okay.
But some reasons to consider might be that they feel lonely and isolated or might not have anyone to talk to about their condition. Whether you want to empathize or don't know what to say in these situations, the following ideas should help you make your way out of these conversations without sounding uncaring and insensitive.
13. “I’m sorry to hear that. When did you first find out?”
Whenever a person reveals something so shocking and personal, usually it’s because they want to elicit some form of sympathy or response from you. Depending on how well you know the person, you may want to ask them questions to encourage them to tell you their story.
If you aren’t open to discussing it, you can end your response with a statement instead of a question. Try saying, “I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers.”
14. “That’s shocking to hear. How are you handling the news?”
Acknowledging the severity of the diagnosis is an excellent place to start the conversation when you're at a loss for words. Telling the person you find the news shocking is a valid reason to stop and take your time formulating an appropriate response. Don't feel the need to come up with something profoundly comforting to say.
Asking questions shifts the burden of conversation to the other person without sounding insensitive. Then they’ll have the opportunity to share more of their diagnosis with you or move on to another topic of discussion. If you're sincerely curious about their condition, it's okay to prod for more on how they're taking the news.
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15. “Have you talked to your family about it?”
Sharing bad news with strangers is often easier than telling those closest to you for several reasons. One is that you may want to spare your loved ones from the pain and suffering of knowing that your life is coming to an end.
Many people withhold this type of information from their friends and family, and they may avoid seeing them or talking to them on the phone for fear of their condition revealing itself. If you suspect this is happening, consider encouraging the person you know to speak to their loved ones so they can make plans and any necessary decisions.
16. “Do you want to talk about it?”
You can turn an awkward conversation into one that helps bring closure to the person with terminal cancer. Making yourself available to listen to someone facing this type of loss can make a difference in how they view life and death. Always consider how much information the other person wants to share in guiding the conversation.
Perhaps the two of you can explore topics such as faith and religion and your beliefs about what happens when we die. These conversations don't have to be profoundly meaningful or stressful. Let them go wherever they need to without overthinking it.
17. “Have you considered your last days?”
This question is the proverbial what would you do with your life if you only had a few months to live. Most of us realize that we’ll all die one day, and we live our lives hoping that we’re blessed with a long and healthy life without overthinking what will happen if life is suddenly cut short.
Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. When discussing their diagnosis and plans, consider their deteriorating health before suggesting traveling the world or climbing Mount Everest. Keep the conversation realistic without making them lose hope for a cure or remission.
What to Say When Someone Tells You Their Cancer Has Returned
Hearing someone say their cancer has come back can be heartbreaking and hard to accept. This is especially true if they’re someone whom you have a close and loving relationship with. Choosing what to say to them is as important as what you do next after getting the news.
Some people facing another potentially long battle with cancer may not want to hear you cheer them on or tell them how they beat cancer once, and they can do it again. Have sensitivity when addressing their diagnosis by thinking about the most appropriate thing to say for their circumstances.
18. “I’m truly sorry to hear that. Let’s sit down and figure out what’s next.”
These diagnoses can create a lot of fear and anxiety in individuals who’ve gone through this experience. They know all too well the energy it takes for them to fight off cancer and how challenging it is to get through the rounds of chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
Many people can’t face this battle alone and need the love and support of their friends and family. Your offer to help them map out a plan for the future challenge can relieve them of the stress of not knowing if they can count on you to be there for them.
19. “How are you holding up mentally and emotionally?”
Rarely does anyone take the time to ask someone faced with cancer how they’re doing aside from their physical condition. A cancer diagnosis brings a huge mental toll on individuals faced with this uphill battle, not just once but twice.
If you’re hearing this from someone you’re close to, take some time to connect with how they’re feeling and get to know how you can best help them through the next few weeks and months. It may be that your loved one feels like a burden to you and others, and they may not want to dump this on you again.
20. “I’m here for you. Where can I get started.”
Letting your loved ones know you’re with them is reassuring, and it helps put their mind at ease on many things. Going through cancer treatment alone is nearly impossible. Offering your support and encouraging your loved ones are ways of helping someone facing a cancer recurrence.
Generally, second cancer recurrences can be more emotionally immobilizing than the first. Your loved one may need additional help and encouragement as they prepare to face their diagnosis.
21. “Do you need help researching alternatives?”
Whenever cancer recurs, it can mean some of the cancerous cells in the body from the first bout remained undetected and later grew. It can also mean a newly detected form of cancer appeared after medical doctors helped eradicate the first. Whatever the reason for cancer reappearing, getting the news can be debilitating.
Consider researching holistic or alternative healing methods to give your loved ones hope for their upcoming struggles with the disease. You can look for treatment centers tailored to lifestyle changes that may help with the treatment or slow down the newly found cancer.
22. “Let’s figure out a schedule for me to come to help you.”
Taking the lead in these conversations and taking action is one of the most comforting things you can do for anyone facing a crisis. Cancer is no different. The diagnosis that the cancer is back can be more than your loved one can bear psychologically and emotionally. They may be ready to give up on life and succumb to the disease.
Getting the news that cancer is back can shake someone's hope of recovery. You can count on your loved ones needing help keeping their doctor's appointments, sorting out their medications at home, and doing everyday tasks.
Helping Your Loved One With Cancer
Cancer treatments have come a long way from just a decade or so ago. There have been new advancements in the care of cancer patients, the medications used, and treatment success rates. Helping your loved one fight this battle will give them hope and make them feel loved and supported through it all.