When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, you might struggle with how to respond. Even if you’ve known that cancer was a possibility, hearing the news can be a punch in the gut. Shock and sorrow are natural first reactions. And the closer you are, the harder the news can hit you. You may literally feel their pain.
While you may be overwhelmed with emotion, it’s important to remember that this is not about you. It’s about the person with cancer, who in this moment and in all the moments to follow, needs support from you. You have an important role to play, and it starts now.
One of the best things you can do is give the person you love a chance to talk. Listen with your ears and your heart. This means sitting quietly and focusing on what they’re saying, rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next. Hear them out. Look in their eyes. Be present. Give them time to say everything they want to say. Talking helps them process and you learn.
You want to say the right thing, but you may be at a loss for words. The simplest words can mean the most, words like:
I’m so sorry you’re going through this.
I’m here for you.
We’ll get through this together.
What do you need to do next, and how can I help you with it?
Be realistic. Don’t try to talk them out of feeling sad – you’ll end up denying their feelings. Don’t try to fix it – you can’t, even if you’re used to solving problems. Don’t offer advice unless they ask for it – you may end up adding to their stress.
Choose your words carefully. What you don’t say is often as important as what you do say. Avoid statements like:
You’re going to be fine.
Cancer is a serious illness, and you don’t know how things will turn out.
I know just how you feel.
Everyone experiences things in their own way. No matter how close you are, you can’t know “just how they’re feeling.” Instead, say, “I can’t imagine how you feel,” which opens the door to sharing those feelings.
Things could always be worse.
Right now, having cancer is this person’s “worst.” Don’t add to their pain by minimizing it.
Let me know how I can help.
Don’t put the burden on them to let you know. Offer specific things and ask if they sound helpful. If they’re not ready for help now, they will be, so keep offering. Or just jump in with a special meal, an unexpected gift, a night out.
My friend had the same kind of cancer, and this is what happened.
No two cancer experiences are alike, and comparisons can stir up fear, anxiety or false hope.
No matter how uncomfortable you are, don’t avoid talking about it. Saying nothing can make the other person feel isolated and alone. Let them know that you’re not sure you have the right words, but are sure you love them and will always be there for them. This is a life-giving promise, and one you can keep.