Hearing the words ‘I have cancer’ from a close friend, relative, co-worker, or even acquaintance can leave even the most word-savvy person at a loss. What can you say to comfort them during such a life-altering event? Do the right words even exist? A delicate balance stands between phrases that provide reassurance and those that leave a person feeling even more dispirited. We’ve compiled a list of comforting phrases as well as ones to avoid when you learn someone has been newly diagnosed with cancer.
3 Things You Should NEVER Say To Someone With Cancer
1. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.
You may not realize how hurtful this sentiment is. After all, you’re just trying to add positivity to a scary situation. What you convey is actually quite the opposite. Saying things like ‘Don’t worry,’ ‘You’ll be fine,’ ‘It could be worse,’ and so forth actually come across as more of a dismissal of one’s feelings than comforting statements. Stay away from these statements AT ALL COST and just remind the person you’re here to help in any way.
2. I know someone who had cancer…
Another statement meant to be comforting but completely missing the mark. There are so many ways people who start this sentence end up finishing it: with unsolicited advice, stating one particular trend diet/doctor cured them, or even that the person has since passed away. While you may be trying to reassure someone, provide a realistic point of view, or offer what you think is fabulous advice, you have actually worked to make the situation all about you. These circumstances are already upsetting and frustrating; interjecting yourself and your opinions only adds confusion and resentment. Honestly, the best way to finish this sentence is to never start in the first place.
The worst thing you can do is fade into the background when someone needs you most. As previously stated, don’t make their situation about you. While cancer can leave anyone thinking about their own mortality, don’t use this as a time to shut yourself off to ‘think about life’ or shut someone out due to their illness. Process your emotions in your own time and work to make yourself open and available for this person.
3 Things You Totally Should Say To Someone With Cancer
1. I’m here for you and I care.
This simple statement says it all without coming across as patronizing or overbearing. Someone you care about has just received some of the most devastating news possible. This may lead them to feel overwhelmed, confused, and angry. While you can’t reassure someone everything will be fine, you can let them know they have you to lean on as a permanent fixture before, during, and after treatment.
2. How are you doing?
After learning someone has cancer, showing concern for their well-being is a completely appropriate response. Use active listening to further engage but do so without offering unwarranted advice (unless the person specifically requests your input). Listening should be the main focus on your part while providing responses when needed. And as crass as it may sound, ‘That sucks!’ may be exactly the response a person needs to hear at this time instead of positive affirmations.
3. Please let me know if you need anything.
Making yourself available is the perfect way to show a person you care. Once they find you dependable, it creates a lasting impression. ‘Anything’ may refer to running errands, driving them to and from appointments, or simply lending an ear when they need to talk/vent.
What if I say the wrong thing?
If you believe something you said may have overstepped boundaries or caused hurt feelings, it’s always a good idea to take a step back, apologize, and reiterate you’re here for the long haul. Remember: No one has the right words 100% of the time, but you can also show your support in the actions you take. If you say you’ll be there, make yourself available. If you say you care, show them by asking what they need or even just spend an evening with them watching cheesy movies to take their mind off anything cancer related.
While this is a very general list of do’s and don’ts, we know everyone processes situations and comments differently. What sentiments have been especially meaningful to you or someone you know going through a hard time? Tell us in the comments below!