Everyone’s had a situation where they didn’t know what to say or do. No one wants to make an already delicate situation any worse by saying or doing the wrong thing.
What do you say to someone who is busy having tests and waiting for results? What do you say to someone who, after any visit to see the doctor, could be leaving the building with a cancer diagnosis? What do you say to someone who has cancer? What can you do to help someone with cancer?
These are all good questions. Unfortunately, there aren’t clear-cut answers, even for someone like me who’s had cancer. Each person’s response to cancer is slightly different, so an appropriate answer for one person may not be the perfect answer for someone else.
This is where knowing your loved one is critical, but it’s a double-edged sword. On one side, knowing the person well means you’re more likely to say and do the right thing. On the other side, you’re the one who’ll have the strongest feelings of regret if you do misstep. No one wants to hurt the one they love but it’s almost inevitable, especially when the person you care about doesn’t always know what they want either.
What to say and do
Even with the uncertainty about what to say and do, you can never truly go wrong if you:
Focus on the person and not the cancer. For example, I'm a writer who happens to have had cancer, not a cancer patient who happens to write. Don't define the person by the disease.
Acknowledge that the person has cancer; don’t pretend it’s not happening or tell the person it's "the good one" to have.
Tell the person you care about them and you’re with them every step of the way.
Listen. If you want to help, sometimes it’s better to listen than to say anything.
Wait for the person to tell you how they feel instead of assuming that you already know.
Allow the person to experience their emotions at their own speed. Some days will be better than others. There are no wrong emotions, but be prepared for those emotions to change quickly.
Resist the urge to tell the person not to worry. Telling someone not to worry is about the same as telling someone to relax. It just doesn’t work.
Let the person take the lead in determining when to talk, what to talk about, what to do, and when to sit in silence.
Admit that you don’t know what it’s like to have cancer. Having a story about someone who has/had cancer is not the same as having it, but it doesn’t mean you can’t provide support.
Recognize that there will be times when the person won’t want to do anything because of physical and emotional fatigue.
Wait to be asked for an opinion or suggestion before providing one.
What NOT to say or do
While knowing what to do might seem difficult to determine, there are some words and actions that are blatantly on the "What NOT to do" list. The following are a few examples:
Don't tell the person that they have the best cancer or the good one. There are no good cancers. It might be the most treatable cancer and have a high survival rate, but that doesn't mean someone can't die from it. It doesn't mean that the person doesn't need the same emotional support as someone with a different kind of cancer.
Don't tell the person stories about all the people you know who have died from cancer.
Don't express an opinion about what actions to take unless the person asks for it.
As someone who wants to help
When you’re with people you care about, the urge to fix things can be very strong. If someone says they can’t get their baby to sleep through the night, everyone within hearing distance has suggestions. If you’re having car trouble, everyone will have suggestions about where to get it fixed or what make and model to buy to replace it. If someone is sick with cancer, everyone has suggestions about what should be done to ensure the person gets better. It could be taking supplements, trying complementary or alternative medicine, deciding what treatments to have, or determining whether, in the case of breast cancer, to have breast reconstruction.
There are so many decisions for the person to make in quick succession and the amount of new information can be overwhelming. Providing additional information, unasked for, can complicate decision-making instead of helping it. Know that your friend or family member will ask for your opinion when they’re ready for it.
As the cancer patient
Listen to your body and only do what you can physically handle. Take care of your emotional health. And, whenever you can, recognize that the people around you need some time to adjust to your diagnosis. Like you, they’re learning what to say and do.