What do you say to someone with cancer?


Today’s post is prompted by two things I read over this past weekend.

Firstly, a post by Feisty Blue Gecko which among other things touches on the insensitivity of the words some people use, and secondly a comment left by Kevin “my auntie has breast cancer it has came back cause they did manage to get rid of it i have not phoned her since because i dont know what to say to her “.

Seeing someone you care about go through pain or a difficult time is not easy. The sense of shock and fear at hearing the news can be overwhelming and while you want to help the person feel better and provide comfort you may be unsure how to go about it.

Susan Delaney, bereavement services manager with the Irish Hospice Foundation, says “the most important thing in communicating with a seriously ill person is to take your cue from them.”

Delaney advises friends and family to adapt their responses to the ill person’s normal character: “most of us have preferred ways of coping with difficult situations and we employ these coping strategies across different situations. So someone who likes to talk and share their feelings will likely continue to do this when facing a serious illness. Likewise someone who tends to be more private, or prefers to focus on actions rather than feelings, may be slower to want to talk openly about what is happening, or may consider questions intrusive.”

Avoiding the topic of cancer for fear of saying the wrong thing can leave the person feeling unsupported or unable to talk about their fears and worries. Similarly, trying to be overly upbeat and encouraging can be tiresome and patronising.

The writer Lionel Shriver has written frankly about her own failings when a close friend, Terri, was diagnosed with cancer:  “there will always be something you’d rather do than confront the agony, anxiety and exile of serious illness . . . But nothing is more pressing than someone you love who’s suffering, and whose continuing existence you can no longer take for granted”.

Sometimes, there are no right words, sometimes the best you can do is listen, without judgment, without offering any (well-meaning but often clichéd) advice. Many people believe that in order to make someone feel better, they need to fix the problem or offer some solution, when all the person wants is to be listened to and have their feelings validated by you.  Rachel Naomi Remen says it better than I ever could:

The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.

What are your thoughts? What should/shouldn’t friends and family say to you when you have cancer or indeed are facing any of life’s struggles?