With approximately 40% of people in the US experiencing a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, chances are that at some point in your life, you will know someone close to you who has been diagnosed with cancer. This can be a very scary and stressful situation for everyone involved. Talking with someone you care about who has cancer is something to approach carefully, as the social and emotional needs and stress levels surrounding a person’s diagnosis can vary considerably. Throughout the following paragraphs, you’ll learn how to talk to someone who has cancer in the most helpful, supportive way.
Process your feelings prior to talking
Learning that someone you care about has cancer can stir up a variety of feelings. Sadness, anger, depression, denial, confusion, fear and helplessness are to be expected for all parties involved. When talking to someone who has cancer, it’s important to process your own feelings prior to talking to them so that you can focus on being there for support and to listen, as the last thing you want to do is burden them with the feelings you are having surrounding their situation. One of the major stressors someone facing cancer experiences is the burden of causing upsetting emotions in those they care about. While it may be impossible to hide your emotions, it’s helpful to process them prior so they do not spill over onto your person. Try to think about the situation your friend or loved one is in from their perspective. Do not show them sympathy, rather empathy for what they are going through.
Everyone has a different outlook on their situation, their life, their need for support, and the ways in which they seek that support. This can vary by culture as well as a person’s individual level of resiliency and mental wellbeing. The best way to communicate with someone who has cancer is by asking permission to ask questions about how they are doing, to learn more about their diagnosis, to offer support, to visit them, to help them with anything they need, and to offer advice. It is okay for them to say no, so be sure to relay this as well.
Make space for positive and negative emotions
A cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence. Despite the fact that 9.5 million cancer deaths occurred in 2018, the likelihood of dying from cancer is going down as treatment options, detection and prevention measures improve. It’s important to remain positive, flexible and optimistic, but do not engage in toxic positivity, as this could be disenfranchising to a person who has been diagnosed.
Be open to expressions of all of the emotions that come with being human and facing a life-threatening disease. This means being able to be there for your friend and show your support with negative and positive emotions alike. Using humor can be a great way to help someone cope with their situation, as well, but only when they’re ready and it’s appropriate. Show your friend that you are there for them and hold space for their sadness and laughter as needed.
Taking the news of one’s diagnosis better or worse than expected is okay. Having a positive outlook despite hardship doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in denial. Perhaps they have a high level of resiliency and choose to focus on the good. If not, that is okay too. Everyone deals with these situations in their own way and there is no single right way to cope. Communicating your support and flexibility both verbally and non-verbally is helpful.
Check-in, but treat them the same
It’s important to show your support, and this can be done by checking in with your friend periodically to let them know that you’re thinking of them, even if they do not want any help or support. It’s also important to treat them like they’re the same person, as this can be more comforting than making them feel like they are being handled differently by those they consider their social support system. Talk about things other than cancer and continue to make plans for the future, to the level your loved one is capable. This will give them something to look forward to as well as provide them a comforting environment, both of which are beneficial to healing and recovery.
Learning about not only a person’s diagnosis, but also their personal experience can help you relay your concern and support to someone with cancer. Oftentimes, a person may feel comforted by talking about their experiences, or even writing about them. Be there to learn about what they are going through, even if it’s simply by listening attentively or reading what they have to share. While learning, it’s important to refrain from telling them what they should do or feel, as each person is unique. It’s also unhelpful to share the experiences of others you’ve known with cancer, unless asked. You want to relay your support first and foremost without the need to share your feelings, experiences, advice or opinions.
Choose your verbiage wisely
In situations as delicate as supporting someone facing a cancer diagnosis, it’s important to choose your words wisely. Sensitivity to the emotions of your friend and what they are going through can most effectively be relayed if you say things such as:
- I’m sorry that you’re going through this
- I care about you
- I’m here for you
- I am here to listen if you want to talk
- How are you feeling/what thoughts are you having and how can I help?
- I’m thinking of you
- I’m sending you positive thoughts/energy
Any good intentions to support someone with cancer can be derailed by using insensitive and/or toxic positivity language such as:
- I know exactly what you must be feeling/are going through
- This is what you should do
- You’re going to be fine
- Don’t worry
- Think positive
- How long do you have?
Provide a comforting presence
Sometimes all you need to do is be there to sit with someone in silence to show your support. Words are not always needed, so long as you are not sitting in an uncomfortable silence. There are a variety of ways to communicate your support non-verbally such as with eye contact, body and facial expressions, attentive/active listening, and by avoiding distractions while listening to or spending time with your friend/loved one. A comforting presence can truly go a long way without having to communicate much verbally.
The need for mental, emotional and social support when facing a cancer diagnosis varies from one person to the next and can depend on age, sex, education level, stress, marriage status, a person’s living situation and mental wellbeing. Take the time to listen to your person’s wishes and needs while showing your support where they communicate needing it most and you’ll be well on your way toward talking with and supporting your loved one as best as you can. Keep in mind that no one is perfect, and it’s important to be easy on yourself during this time as well. Take some time to focus on your own wellbeing and self-care so that you will be able to offer your best self when showing your support.
40% of people in the US will face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.
It’s important to process your own emotions first and show empathy vs. sympathy.
Make room for both positive and negative emotions and get permission before asking questions and providing help.
Show care by checking in and treating them like the same person they’ve always been.
Choose your words wisely and offer a supportive presence when there are no words to express.