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What to Say to Someone With Cancer | The Patient Story

What to Say to Someone with Cancer

So a family member, friend, colleague, or even a stranger has told you they have cancer. What do you say in response?

The answer seems simple, but in the heat of an emotional moment, it’s not unusual to be caught off guard. It is life changing news for the person diagnosed, and highly emotional news to receive.

Even if you personally haven’t experienced it yet, chances are high you may eventually. Every year, more than a million people are diagnosed with cancer in the United States alone.

There’s no one right or wrong way to go about it, but here are some tips to help make your words matter to a loved one with cancer.

What to say to someone with cancer

“That human connection is one of the most important things for me. Hearing somebody say, ‘I get that,’ is so impactful. ”

They understood how occupied I was. How little bandwidth I had to process my new reality, much less what they had to say. Having that allowed me the space to actually hear their words and fully understand their intentions. Those fours words were most liberating in my time of high stress.

You don’t have to have magic words. You don’t have to try to fix it. You can’t. You can just say, “Dang, that’s really hard.”

Connect with yourself and how you feel when you’re at your worst, and understand that that’s how the patient is feeling. Sometimes somebody just needs you to validate their feelings and for you to just cry with them.

Cat L., Breast Cancer Survivor

As my relationships changed after we had our first child (less “guys at a bar” and more “father of your child’s friend”), it became clear that cancer, like childbirth, had the potential to be a relationship-changing event. So I kept my condition quiet with most people, but used it to expand my relationships with a new group.

Bill P. (Kidney Cancer)

My husband was like “stay positive, stay positive!” And I would maybe start to voice my concerns or worries and he’d say you can’t think like that. Everyone would try to pep talk me. So I started saying, “No, I have to feel this. This is scary and I have to think about what if my kids don’t have a mom.”

Jodi S. (Ovarian Cancer)

I picked certain people who didn’t necessarily work on my team but I would see as I walked into the office or in elevators. I let them know…they would give me a hug and go, “Genoa, you’re here!” I’m like, “I know!” And knowing that I would see those people helped.

Genoa M. (Breast Cancer)

The death stories and the stories about people they know who have died of cancer, the rambling of stupid stuff. That was the worst part. I think the baldness is less of that but it opens up the door for random people to start telling you cancer stories and death stories.

Doreen D. (Breast Cancer)
How and when to reach out to someone with cancer

It was overwhelming to rehash everything over and over. My mom, my husband, and two of my friends were the only people I cared to speak to. My mom provided updates to my dad, sister, and anyone else who was checking in. I appreciated the outpouring of love in the form of cards, calls, texts, flowers, gifts, etc. I never felt so loved in my life. I was just physically and mentally unable to speak to everyone once treatment started.

Donna S. (Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma)

I didn’t have people bringing me meals or anything like that. That kind of thing would have been really nice. I think people don’t know what to do, and they don’t know what to say, and they don’t want to intrude, and then if you have the type of personality where you don’t want to be intrusive, then it can cause it to be a pretty isolating experience.

Ashley W. (Soft Tissue Sarcoma)

It’s hard because on the one hand I want to say push the boundaries. I tend to be introverted, I don’t like asking people for help so I mostly appreciate it when somebody is a little pushier and just says hey I’m going to come over with this meal and I’ll just leave it here if you want to talk, or don’t want to talk. Come in if you do want to talk. But they would sort of take the initiative.

Lisa G. (Lung Cancer)

My cousins are just like siblings to me. They took me out to eat the things I could eat. At a point when the only good thing I could still eat was ice cream, there were deliveries from Yogurtland every other day. There was absolutely nothing to do, they brought over a cricut machine and gave me arts and crafts to do.

Carmen Y. (Thyroid Cancer)

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