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Finding The Right Words For A Friend With Cancer

Just when there's so much to say, you can find yourself walking a verbal tightrope. Let love lead the way.
PUBLISHED April 20, 2017
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.
Finding the right words is so hard for anyone whose life cancer touches, whether you're the patient yourself or someone who loves a person with the disease. Like a lot of us, cancer is a part of my life on the most personal level — I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer close to two-and-a-half years ago — and in so many other ways. Friends and family have or have had cancer, people I knew well (and not so well) have died from it, and still more will find themselves watching the words “I’m sorry. It’s cancer” tumble out of their doctor’s mouths. 

The phrases that come along with a cancer diagnosis, saying them or hearing them, can be like verbal minefields. One wrong word, a bad day versus a good day, one-too-many tidbits of advice from an acquaintance and you can practically hear the hurt in the silence that follows. I believe it is always better to say something (as I’ve said before) than to say nothing. 

But walking that tightrope of words requires skill and care when one friend is living with a life-threatening prognosis and another is a “survivor.” How do you tell someone you’re glad he’s alive without feeding the anxiety and sorrow others feel? 

I had a chance to think about this at length a week ago when my social media feeds were filling up with both well wishes for a man who’s been cancer-free for 10 years after beating what could have been a life-ending diagnosis and with rest-in-peace messages for two of the approximately 112 women who die from breast cancer in the U.S. each day.

The three people whose lives were taking up my thoughts were remarkably similar: They were all parents of teenagers or younger children, spouses, involved in their communities, and people so many would be happy to call friends. 

Among the most common words said to the survivor were variations of the phrase, “God has more for you to do.” There’s no doubt that this man, given the chance to continue his life, will accomplish much more. He’ll be there for his children and his wife, for his parents, for his community, and he will very likely continue to be the sort of man who “deserves” to live. 

But as I read those words over and over, I felt a stab to my heart each time. The women whose families were grieving would not hear those words, although they would have been equally true for each of them. Given the chance, they also would have been there for the people in their lives. They also had more to do and more to give. As someone living with metastatic breast cancer, this hits hard. I asked myself, "Was it possible that their deaths and my own diagnosis meant we had no more to do in this life?" and if that was the case, how did it reflect on the value of our lives? 

We have so many chances to say the right thing, but it can be so hard to find the words. Does telling someone he must have more to accomplish mean that those who died were done with everything they could have achieved? To someone in a moment of pain, it can feel that way even when we are happy for the continued lives of others facing similar odds.

I know firsthand how difficult it can be to say what is meant without causing anxiety, pain, fear or any of the multitude of negative emotions that cancer brings into our lives. I’ve been the one saying something unfortunate as often as I’ve been the one hearing it. Although these days, with the friends whose lives continue and those whose lives are ending, I keep it simple. I am glad for the time each one has been given, and I let each know of my love by saying it out loud, no matter how long her life is nor how much she accomplishes.

Vigilance in what we say can be hard when we're overcome by emotions, whether we're feeling joy or heartbreak. As I watch lives unfold with cancer, I remind myself each day to choose my words carefully if I’m going to do more than express love and gratitude for a life ahead or a life newly gone. 
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