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What Do You Say to Someone Who Has Cancer?


A cancer survivor shares advice on how people can support a friend with cancer.

I’ve read several articles over the years about what not to say to someone who has cancer.

Surely, you’ve heard some of these: Don’t tell them stories about others you know who have cancer and have either survived miraculously or died after suffering for many years. Don’t tell them about recent treatments you’ve heard about. Don’t suggest foods to eat or avoid or exercise routines to try. Don’t say cancer is a chronic disease now and manageable, etc.

But it got me to thinking … What do you say to someone close who announces they have cancer?What would I like my friends and family to say or do when they hear these shocking words?

I would like my friends to show me how they feel. This may come through with words: “I feel so badly for you,” “I feel so sorry that you have to go through this,” “This is such sad news,” “I am here for you.” I do not want anyone to feel pity for me, and sometimes the words people choose and the way they say them conveys pity. I don’t want that. I want heartfelt love and compassion to come through in carefully chosen words. I want to feel loved and supported, and that you will be there for me if I need you.

One thing a friend could do that would make me feel truly loved is to cry with me. If when I tell you I have metastatic cancer, you break down in tears or if you hold me in your arms, then I can let down my guard and be vulnerable with you. We can share our sad feelings about my illness. If you cry, I know that you care about me deep inside and that you will be there to walk the journey with me.

I think sometimes people want to be strong for their courageous friend and crying isn’t thought of as strength. But in my experience, it is. By crying, you are showing me you have the strength to be compassionate (not pitying) and to be moved by the suffering of another. If you are able to be vulnerable and raw with me, I will feel the love.

Not everyone is a crier. Instead, friends could offer to help me in any way I might need and truly mean it. When I went through my most recent cancer experience, I asked my beloved friends to help me and every single one of them did. They set up a MealTrain account where I could post my needs of any kind. They checked up on me daily, prayed with me and drove me to doctor’s appointments, whether they were scheduled or unexpected. They cooked for me, played puzzles with me, sang with/for me, sat with me, cleaned my house and helped me bathe. All of these actions were beautiful expressions of love and care.

So, this is my advice offering to you: allow yourself to feel deeply when your friend or relative tells you they have cancer and allow yourself to show them these emotions without judgment. If your friend is like me, being in the heart zone at this time is more desirable than words. Be sensitive in what you say and let your love flow freely.

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