What to Say to Someone with Cancer
It can be challenging to muster the ability to make sense of a diagnosis of a disease of a loved one. It is more manageable to say nothing at all than to grasp what is at play in the body of someone who has cancer and then attempt to offer words of condolences and support.
It's okay if you don't know what to say to someone with cancer, but saying nothing leaves those diagnosed feeling vulnerable, isolated, invisible, unheard, and astonishingly overwhelmed.
This is precisely how Kate Burns, activist, ex-capitalist, SoCAL Breastie ambassador, and founder and host of "Talking Back at Cancer" on Clubhouse, felt after being diagnosed with stage 3 triple-positive breast cancer in August 2018. It was just seven days before she turned 37, and leading up to her diagnosis, she knew something just wasn't right.
"I had been sick for months, but doctors 'couldn't find anything wrong with me," Burns said. "I was having hot flashes, fainting, falling asleep at the desk...I knew something was wrong, however, was dismissed and told I was probably going into early menopause. That was until I found the lump."
She went from being the mother hen of her group of friends to being the person who needed the most support from them. And while she often found herself often agitated by what people said, she also received exceptional words of advice from friends and family that helped her navigate one of the toughest challenges she has ever faced in her life. One of the best pieces of advice she received from a friend who also had breast cancer was to take life day by day, hour by hour.
You are not to blame for your poor grasp of what it is to say, but it's essential to make an effort to connect with people and reach out when someone is diagnosed with cancer. There are no specific guidelines or rule books; however, here are six things you can say to someone with cancer.
1. Let me know if there's anything I can do for you
You don't need to have all of the answers, but you need to be a good listener. Ask your friend or family member with cancer what it is they need and if you can assist with anything — and then do it.
- Practical support. Offer to confront the worst with them. Go to doctor appointments, blood transfusions, chemotherapy, etc. Prepare care packages, run errands, assist with childcare — even the smallest of tasks can be incredibly challenging for someone with cancer.
- Emotional support. You might not be a therapist, but that doesn't mean you can't be an active listener to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Call them up, send texts of love, and make it clear that no matter what, you are there for them.
2. I don't know what to say, but I'm scared, but I care about you
- It's okay to be scared. Fear is at the heart of the hesitation we have about reaching out to someone with cancer. It's not easy to find the right words when someone is struggling, and when we worry, we are often silent... don't be.
- Be honest. Tell that person straight up that you don't know what to say, and be honest — it's okay to be scared.
3. This sucks, and I can't imagine what you're going through
- You don't know what they're going through. You might think you are displaying a sense of empathy by offering words of condolences along the lines of, "I can imagine what you're going through." Truthfully, those who have never been diagnosed with cancer can not begin to grasp what that is like. Instead, be honest about not knowing what that is like, and acknowledge how awful it must be.
- Don't treat them differently. It's okay if you don't know what to say, but one of the worst things you can do is treat someone differently because of their diagnosis.
4. How are you feeling?
When people have cancer, they are often in a lot of pain. They are more likely to feel in distress and experience a range of unpleasant emotions, including fear, anxiety, and anger. You won't know any of this or how to help if you don't ask the simple question, "how are you feeling?"
- Normalize negative emotion. Actually listen to how someone is feeling. We tend to ask under the presumption we will get a positive response, which is not always the case.
- Be trustworthy and a good listener. Provide a confidential and safe space for someone with cancer to share how they feel with you. Don't offer pity or ever belittle the importance of the words being told to you.
5. This isn't your fault
It's easy to play the blame game with a disease like cancer. "What have I done to deserve this? Why me?" It would be best if you did everything you can to convey that they have done nothing to have caused their cancer.
- You can have no risks and still develop cancer. You can do everything right in life and still end up with a cancer diagnosis. Be sure to reiterate this to your friend or family member with cancer.
- Don't place blame. Ask how you can support them, not try to find reasons why this could've happened to them.
6. You're not alone
Perhaps the most important thing you can convey to someone with cancer is that they are not alone. In fact, one of our taglines for AnaOno is Never Alone, to remind those that we’re here to support them in any way we can.
- Offer to listen. People who are lonely or feel they lack meaningful relationships are more likely to think that their life lacks meaning and tend to be more bored and feel helpless. Be there for the person in your life with cancer.
- Text, call, or visit. Don't overwhelm them but do make an effort to let that person know that they are not alone.
What not to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer
While knowing what to say is essential, equally as such is knowing what not to say to someone with cancer.
- Everything happens for a reason. As Burns would say, "that is absolutely rubbish." It is well-meaning but not the right approach to offering someone with cancer any comfort.
- Referencing someone else who had cancer and passed away.
- Utilizing toxic positivity. For example., Have you tried eating more kale or using essential oils?
- Everything is going to be okay. Be positive, but don't emit false optimism. You don't know everything is going to be okay.
- Hey, free boob job! Having a mastectomy of any sort and deciding to get implants afterwards is NOT a free boob job, nor should one ever compare getting breast implants for aesthetic reasons.
- Nothing. You may lack insight on what it means to have cancer, but saying nothing to someone diagnosed can be one of the worst things to do.
Lastly, just because someone is cancer-free doesn't mean that they don't need continued support. For example, women with hormone-positive breast cancer may have to take medicine years after they're in remission and up to ten years later.
Keep checking in. Continue to support, listen, and empathize as best you can with someone diagnosed recently or not.
If you are looking for even more resources as to how you can best support someone with cancer, be sure to check out the fantastic articles we've rounded up below.
- How to Support Someone with Breast Cancer by Dana Donofree for AnaOno
- 14 of the Best Gifts I Received During Cancer Treatment by Jennifer Garam for Self
- 10 Tips for Supporting a Friend with Cancer by Valerie Banner for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
- Guide On How to Talk to Cancer Patients & Survivors for Cancer Treatment Centers of America
- 12 Things Not to Say to Someone With Cancer by Elizabeth Beasley for Healthgrades