At a Loss for Words When Discussing a Loved One's Cancer

It can be difficult for caregivers and friends to find the right words when talking about a loved one’s cancer.
AFTER JEN SOTHAM’S MELANOMA metastasized, her friends organized a candlelight yoga session to show support, posting that it was in “honor of Jen, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.”

That stung. “I don’t think she meant to be insensitive,” Sotham, 42, says of the friend who wrote the post. “Historically, yes, melanoma has been terminal. That’s a heavy thing to say about someone who has just been diagnosed.”

While she doesn’t want people to sugarcoat her disease, Sotham would prefer that, when talking about cancer, friends and family call things what they are: for instance, “stage 4,” rather than “terminal.” Advances such as precision medicine are helping people live with cancer, the Long Island resident adds, so friends who want to be supportive should research their loved one’s disease and choose words that fit that individual.

Well-meaning people often struggle to choose the right words. Even if adopting the terms most commonly used in our culture, should they choose to talk to friends diagnosed with cancer as if they’re going into battle, or as if they’re embarking on a journey? Should they name the disease — cancer — or speak in euphemisms?

The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all way to talk about cancer. People with the disease vary widely in how they talk about it, so caregivers and other friends and family members should listen carefully to the words those loved ones use and mirror that language, experts say.

“There is no single right answer. What becomes critical are not your words, but your capacity to listen,” says Judith Kelman, founder and director of the Visible Ink writing program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in New York City.


People’s first instinct is often to do or say what they’d prefer in similar circumstances, but Kelman, who has volunteered with Visible Ink for nine years, has learned that this tactic does not always work. When she asked a group of people with cancer for the best thing someone had said that really helped them get through their illness, one person recalled, “I was feeling horrible and somebody looked at me with affection in their gaze and said, ‘You look terrific.’ Another person in the same group said, ‘The worst thing you can say is, ‘You look terrific.’”

While some like to refer to cancer as a “journey,” others are more in the “#&*! cancer” camp. Not sure which group your loved one with cancer falls into? Just ask. Mary Strauss, L.C.S.W., oncology licensed clinical social worker at Smilow Cancer Center at Yale-New Haven in Connecticut, read that one person with cancer said, “Unless you’re sending me on a cruise, please don’t refer to it as a ‘journey.’”

Since the term “War on Cancer” worked itself into the lexicon in the 1970s, battle terms have become commonplace when talking about cancer. Obituaries often say that someone “lost their battle with cancer after a brave fight.”

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