How to React to the News

CURE, Summer 2008, Volume 7, Issue 2

Here are some reaction guidelines from survivors and cancer therapists for well-meaning family and friends.

A family member or friend has just announced they have cancer. Many people don’t know what to say in response. They give the pity stare. Or they share stories about a friend who had cancer … and died. Robin Baird, who has metastatic breast cancer, has even had people tell her she must have done something evil earlier in her life. “That’s so not helpful,” she says wryly.

Here are some reaction guidelines from survivors and cancer therapists.

> Keep it simple. “I’m really sorry. I would like to be there to support you.”

> Ask how they’re doing. Talking about cancer is therapeutic for lots of folks. So make it clear you’re ready to listen. And don’t be hurt if the mood of the day is, “I’d rather not go into it now.” Also, avoid making comparisons to other people with cancer you might know.

> Offer help. Be specific, suggests Shirley Otis-Green, an oncology social worker at City of Hope. Tell the patient what you can do to help: pick the kids up from school, bring over meals, mow the lawn, go on the web for research, let people know at church. She also cautions, “Don’t offer anything you really can’t do.”

> Follow up. “Don’t treat it as a one-time announcement,” says Karl, who has a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. If someone told you of an impending marriage or birth, you’d keep asking how things are going. “Cancer,” he says, “merits the same attention.”