What to Say When Someone Has Cancer

The ‘C’ Word. When you hear it for the first time it kinda feels like a bomb dropping on your heart. It devastates your mind. It renders you speechless. Cancer sucks. With cancer on the rise, caregivers and support teams alike need to be ready to respond. I speak from experience, not just as a nurse, but as a caregiver too. I remember telling my best friend at the age of 15 about my Dad’s cancer diagnosis. It was early in the morning and I met her at our shared locker just like any other school day. As soon as she saw me, it was clear something was wrong. My head down, hair disheveled. It was definitely a sweatpants day. The word ‘cancer’ was barely audible between my sobs. Her response was perfect. She hugged me immediately, and shuffled us to the nearest bathroom for privacy. We had a moment of silence. Finally she said “We are going to get through this – Papa Gleason is going to get through this”. I liked what she said because she said we; meaning I did not have to go through this alone. It was clear that she meant what she said, and looking back years later she stuck to her word.

Whatever you do say, say it from the heart. Say it like you mean it. I remember a teammate had said to me “Oh, okay sorry”. Her delivery sounded like she was minimizing the situation.  Sometimes, we just want to be acknowledged for the severity of what it is.

Start with this:

  • “I am so sorry”

Follow with this:

  • “I want you to know I am here for you, now and whenever you need me”
  • “How are you doing?” then “How is your family doing?”
  • “I do not know what to say, just know that I care [for you or your family]
  • “What can I do to make this a little easier on you?”
    • “Can I bring you dinner next Wednesday?”
    • “How about I let your dog out when you are at treatment”
    • “Do you need a ride at all?”

So long as you are genuine and show your support, your cannot go wrong. Unless you say the following:

  • “I know how you feel” – it’s likely that you do not.
  • “I understand” – you probably don’t
  • “That sucks” – cancer does suck, but your friend or family needs support, not additional negativity

What have you said in the past?


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