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The Only Two Things You Need to Say to Someone With Cancer

Forget advice, forget the stories of others with cancer, and leave silence behind you when you learn about a friend's cancer diagnosis
PUBLISHED September 27, 2016
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
It's inevitable: Someone you love or just know casually is going to be diagnosed with cancer.

Even if you yourself have cancer, chances are pretty good that you will not be alone in your circle of friends. There's also a pretty good chance that you will be as stymied as everyone else when it comes to knowing what to say and when to say it. Because we are not perfect, even when we feel so much pressure to do the right thing, it’s shockingly easy to say something that brings on doubt or hurt or confusion. The last thing you want is to bring those emotions into a friend's life. 

I will never forget running into a friend as I dropped off a child at school shortly after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. It had been less than a month. I was just starting to tell people about the diagnosis. This woman had not only been kind to me in the past, but had been exceptionally kind to my children. As I stood there, vulnerable and scared, this friend told me about the death of her mom from breast cancer and asked if I was going to have chemotherapy. I replied that chemotherapy really offered me the best chance to live. She urged me to explore alternative treatments. She told me that chemotherapy is what actually killed her mother. It had been less than a month since I first heard the words "it's cancer." It had been even less than that since the doctors confirmed the breast cancer had spread to my lungs. I stood there, my mind utterly blank. I expected warmth. I got fear.

When I think about how I respond to acquaintances and friends, I try to keep the emotional toll of that early conversation in mind. I do not want to be the one to bring fear into the lives of others. I do not want to tell others how to live, even as I want to explore the things that I believe have helped me deal better with the effects and side effects of this diagnosis. 

Because my diagnosis means I will continue to get treatment indefinitely, I still hear it all from everyone. I know that hurt is almost never what is intended. I tell myself that the friend down the street just doesn’t really understand — and how could she — but isn’t it nice she was thinking of me?

That’s what I try to keep in mind as I walk the line between giving love and negating another’s experience.

I've been reminded of this more and more as we approach October and everyone, everywhere, turns toward breast cancer. We are urged to be positive, but sometimes it's the positive phrases that can hurt the most. The fact is that anyone who's been given the diagnosis of cancer is living in her (or his) own unique universe. No one responds the same way to treatment, to stress, to the simultaneous overwhelming amount of information and the severe shortage of certainty.

I look at my own life and let my experiences guide me as best they can.

I remember that there's no need to urge the person to "beat it," there's no reason to bring up the story of someone who died of cancer and there's even less purpose in silence.

There are really only two things that need to be said to someone you love facing cancer of any stage: I'm here. I love you. 

And then show up, give a hug, bring a flower and let that friend lead the way.
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