Family Health, Men's Health, Women's Health, Your Health Lindsay Guinaugh | 7 years ago

A Difficult Conversation: What to Say to a Loved One Who Has Cancer

If a friend or family member has been diagnosed with cancer, you may be having a difficult time knowing what to say or how to help. You’re not alone. More than 1.6 million people in the US are diagnosed with cancer each year and nearly half of all men and one-third of all women will have cancer during their lifetimes.

“It’s never easy to learn someone is dealing with the emotional and physical stress of a cancer diagnosis,” said Meg Turner, LCSW, on the Psychosocial Oncology team at Carolinas HealthCare System’s Levine Cancer Institute. “But there are many ways you can support your loved one to help him or her cope with this difficult time.” Turner recommends trying these tips to talk to a loved one with cancer:

Continue the Relationship:

Many people may back away when they learn someone has cancer because they don’t know what to say or they’ve had a previous negative experience with cancer, like losing a loved one to the disease. “This person probably needs you now more than ever,” said Turner. “It’s important to maintain the relationship with your friend or loved one and to have the courage to be there when they need you most, even if you don’t always know what to say or do.”

Be There to Listen:

Your loved one may be experiencing a host of emotions – fear, anger, sadness, guilt, helplessness or anxiety. He or she may be concerned about the impact cancer will have on finances, a job or relationships. With all of these emotions and fears, your loved one may just need someone to talk to. Be sure you keep the lines of communication open and be a good listener, instead of leading the conversation.

Choose Your Words Carefully:

When you are doing the talking, never say “I know how you feel,” or give advice. Instead, continue to listen and ask questions.

Let Them Share Information:

Some people may want to talk about what their physician said in detail, while others may not want to talk about it at all. “Let your loved one set the tone for what he or she wants to talk about – whether it’s cancer or something else,” said Turner.

Offer to Help:

Instead of saying, “Call me if you need anything,” say, “What can I do to help?” For example, you might offer to provide transportation to a doctor’s office, go grocery shopping or cook a meal.

Focus on Your Loved One:

Show respect for their situation by avoiding discussions about your headache, minor stresses or rough day at work.

Stay Positive:

Try to help your loved one focus on positive information, such as stories about cancer survivors, advances in cancer treatments or even non-cancer-related topics, like uplifting stories in the news.

Make Them Laugh:

“It can be hard to find humor during a serious illness, but laughter sometimes is indeed the best medicine,” said Turner. “Humor can be a powerful way to cope with the emotions of cancer by boosting your loved one’s mood, reducing stress and providing a distraction from thinking about the disease.”

Be Honest:

“It’s okay to admit that you don’t know what to say at times, but reassure your loved one that you are there for them and will be there throughout their treatment,” said Turner. “They’ll appreciate your honesty and recognize that you’re being supportive in your own way.”