What To Say – And Not Say – To A Person With Cancer

Most people find it awkward when first talking with a friend or acquaintance who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Even though nearly everyone is well-intentioned, many say things that hurt or mystify more than they comfort.

Based on my own experiences and my conversations with others with cancer, here are some suggestions:

Bob Riter
Bob Riter

What to say

  • “How are you doing with all of this?” A simple question like this lets the person with cancer take the lead and opens the door for conversation.
  • “Would you like to grab a cup of coffee and talk?”
  • “I’m sorry.”
  • One friend describes two layers of response whenever she tells someone that she has cancer. The first layer is immediate, honest and from the gut. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” The second layer is when the person begins saying those things they think they should say. “You’ll be fine. You’ll be playing tennis in a month.” She wishes that people would stop talking after the “I’m so sorry.”

What not to say

  • “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.” Everyone’s natural instinct is to reassure the newly diagnosed that everything will be OK. But if you say to them “don’t worry,” they usually hear, “I’m afraid to talk about your cancer.”
  • You have to see this doctor or have this treatment or begin this cancer-fighting diet. People with cancer get way too much advice. If they want your advice, they’ll ask for it.
  • “That’s too bad about your cancer, but I could be hit by a bus tomorrow.” No one in the history of civilization has ever found comfort in these words, but people say it all the time.
  • “Do you smoke?” People with lung cancer get asked this routinely.
  • “Tell me how I can help.” This comment often comes from the heart, but it puts the burden on the person with cancer to think of and assign tasks. It’s better just to do things. Bring meals, take care of the kids for an evening, walk the dog, write cards of support, or call and say, “I’m heading to the supermarket. What can I pick up for you?”

As with other difficult conversations, the specific words are less important than the tangible presence of friends and loved ones. It’s OK if the words get a bit tangled. Those of us with cancer will recognize your intent and your kindness.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.
Original publication date: September 9, 2017

Bob Riter is the Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes. He can be reached at [email protected]

4 thoughts on “What To Say – And Not Say – To A Person With Cancer

  1. This short article is so true and until you are diagnosed with a serious disease like cancer, you don’t realize how hurtful some of those “well-meaning words of advice” can sting and leave a lasting mark. Even worse is hearing someone tell you to think positive and you’ll be fine. Someone telling me “you’ll be just fine,” tells me they want me to shut up and not mention it again to them. I try to stay away from those who tell me how I’m going to be as if they know the outcome. A person diagnosed with cancer has a new reality on life, uncertainty as to how things will turn out, how treatments will affect them, and the quality of their life living with cancer. No, sometimes we aren’t ok, we are overwhelmed, and just need someone to listen. We need to feel safe and receive support and understanding and occasionally a shoulder to cry on when things become too overwhelming. You really find out who your true friends are when you’re hit with this devastating diagnosis. I think next time someone tells me that I’m going to be just fine I’ll respond with; “Really? Can I borrow your crystal ball?” LOL Having and keeping a sense of humor is probably the most important survival tool of all. Knowing how to be there to support someone who has cancer is a true gift.

  2. Hi Bob.Great article.Pancreatic cancer is always called “silent cancer”. A while ago I’ve read an article about Pancreatic Cancer. According to the article, Jaundice,Abdominal or back pain, and Poor appetite are some of the commonest syptoms you can look out for if you suspect you have pancreatic cancer. Do you agree?

    1. I think I can help answer that question. In its early stages, pancreatic cancer rarely presents any symptoms. The symptoms usually start when the cancer has grown and has begun to affect other organs or if it has grown large enough to block the bile ducts. Yes, symptoms include jaundice, abdominal or back pain, and poor appetite, but also can include weight loss, loss of appetite weakness, or nausea and vomiting. We have an article about if you would like more information. https://www.oncolink.org/cancers/gastrointestinal/pancreatic-cancer/all-about-pancreatic-cancer

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