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'It's All Over' and Other Things You Shouldn't Say to People With Cancer


It is not always easy to know what to say to a loved one who was just diagnosed with cancer. Here are some dos and don'ts that may help. But remember, every person is different.

Well, it’s nice to think I know all about how to talk to someone newly diagnosed with cancer since I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years — since my own diagnosis of breast cancer in 1986 and then researching it for CURE®.

Communicating with the newly diagnosed can be a challenge. In this time of texting, messaging, email and Skype, it is important to know how they want to communicate — so ask. If you leave a message, be sure to say you are OK with them not returning the call since they have so much on their minds.

Don’t go by the hospital unless you know you are expected, and then don’t stay long. I have visited someone at the hospital when it was standing room only. The hospital is exhausting, so if you do find out they want you to come by, only stay a maximum of 10 minutes or so. If your friend is sleeping, write a note in their hospital notebook instead of staying around or, as I’ve seen a few people do, waking them up.

Know that the best gift usually does not include fresh cut flowers, which can make people on chemotherapy sick if they have a strong fragrance. Instead, get gift cards for meals or services such as Uber Eats, which lets people who are homebound choose from healthy food that is delivered. It may also be unhealthy for them to eat out at restaurants because their immune system might be compromised.

If you are part of a church group or any other group that wants to help, tell them to put a piece of tape with their name and contact information on the bottom of the bowl or baking dish. Nothing is more frustrating than not knowing who belongs to which serving dish. Even better, put your dish in a disposable aluminum baking dish. And if you bring something for them to freeze, put the date on the tape so the person eating it will know how long it has been in the fridge or freezer.

At the time of my diagnosis, my husband was teaching a Sunday school class of older couples and widows. In my circle, no one is more beloved than a Sunday school teacher, and I benefited from friends trying to outcook each other. I had a teen and a toddler at home when I was diagnosed, so everything was eaten with gusto. This group was the one that taught me about the tape on the bottom of the dish, and I added a nifty use for it. They wrote the name of the dish and their name and address on the tape. If I was careful, I could peel it off and put it on a piece of paper to keep track of thank-you notes.

But, in the midst of an outpouring of generosity, there were also some comments that upset me. Here are some of the worst I’ve heard:

  • “God never gives you more than you can handle.” This is a slippery slope as soon as it leaves your mouth, because the implication is that God gave you cancer and it wouldn’t be more than you could handle. Unless you know the family’s belief system really well, this could make them feel much worse.
  • Advice on how to physically deal with the cancer. I had someone tell me that her cousin had brain cancer and he cured it with coffee enemas. Well I am such an idiot, I had to use doctors.
  • Attempts to cheer them up or make them feel better. Before you make comments, be sure you know the details.
  • “It’s all over.” We had an intern at my church who came to see me in the hospital. She launched into the story of her cousin and how she was diagnosed the same age I was. And then she said, “But hers didn’t go to the lymph nodes because once that happens it’s all over.” I stared at her, hoping she would see what a terrible thing she said. I had a huge malignant lymph node.

When talking to people I know who were recently diagnosed with cancer, I try to keep my comments around what I can do for them. If they don’t know what to ask, I will say, “Can you tell me what you know?” and ask them what they are comfortable talking about.

As they relay what has happened so far, I will ask if they know some specifics. It helps me get a handle on what I need to do next. If they want to know why they got cancer, I tell them I don’t know, but I am here for them.

When they answer, try to let them take the lead. If you start with, “How are you?” it doesn’t leave them much information without saying something they may not want to. So, this is always a good start: “I just heard and wanted to let you know I am thinking about you. You know I will do anything you need, but I was thinking that the kids need to eat, and you may not feel like cooking, can I bring a meal? Maybe I can even help more than that.”

A card is also a great way to start. Let them know you want to help and give them a phone number or email.

Ask if you can offer to help coordinate meals for them. There is a great program called Lotsa Helping Hands that allows you to control what kind of food you get and when. This website only needs one person to coordinate. Or, if you prefer to cook something and bring it over yourself, don’t just stop by unannounced. Ask them when is a good time to bring over food.

You can also offer to help them with transportation. Maybe they need someone to pick their children up from school or to drive them to and from doctor appointments.

Let them know that they can call you at any time, but understand if they want to keep phone conversations short. When they do get talking, know that one of the most important things a loved one can do is listen. Don’t offer solutions or try to fix it. Just listen.

Here’s one final important recommendation: Do not share what they have told you with anyone. The rumor mill will be filled with error. If someone asks you, just say you did talk to the person and you would not be comfortable sharing, but you recommend sending a card and offering to help.

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