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What To Say When Someone Is Diagnosed With Cancer

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Updated September 26, 2011

Finding out that somebody you care about has a cancer such as leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma can be shocking, emotional, even devastating. When a diagnosis makes us feel so bad, it is almost impossible to imagine how the person who has received the diagnosis must feel. Our hope is that we can find the right words or the right action to take some of the pain away- but how can we say what we feel? What is the right thing to say?

Take Your Cue

Sometimes the most surprising thing about a cancer diagnosis is how the patient handles it. They may show unbelievable strength you never knew they had, or be more vulnerable than you knew. They might show a number of different emotions, sadness, anger, guilt, fear, ambivalence, avoidance- and sometimes they may show these all at once or change from moment to moment.

People’s reaction to any situation is shaped by all their experiences from their past, and this is what leads to a variety in the way that people manage or cope with events. In short, when it comes to dealing with a stressful diagnosis such as cancer, expect the unexpected.

Where your loved one is at with their diagnosis will help you to shape your response to it. Maybe they are in a stage where their diagnosis is all they want to talk about, or maybe they don’t want to talk about it at all. If they are diagnosed at time when their disease is stable, your response will be quite different than if they are diagnosed in life- threatening condition or hospitalized.

Whatever You Choose to Say- Choose to Say Something

Sometimes the pressure to say the right thing can be overwhelming. What if your loved one starts to cry? What if they ask you something you don’t know the answer to? What if they get mad at you? What if you make them feel worse? The temptation may be to avoid the situation altogether. After all, they know that you care about them, don’t they?

The truth is, cancer is the giant purple striped elephant in the middle of the room. To not acknowledge it is almost always more hurtful than anything you could ever say.

Hospital Visits

First of all, hospital visits are not mandatory cancer diagnosis etiquette (if there is such a thing). Many people have a deep aversion to hospitals, and if this is you know that there are many other ways you can show how much you care.

If you don’t have a problem with hospitals, there are a few things you should consider before heading out to visit.

  • Call ahead to find out the visiting hours of the nursing unit. Expect that you may not be able to visit until late morning or after early evening, and that there is often a rest period time in the afternoon. Also find out if your friend or loved one is accepting visitors.
  • Expect to keep your visit short, no more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time. Blood cancer patients experience a great deal of fatigue, made worse by a recent diagnosis. If they want you to stay longer than that, take your cue but ensure that you don’t tire them out
  • Stay away if you are not feeling well, or if you are just getting over an illness. People with these types of cancers often have a low immune system at the time of their diagnosis, and exposure to a virus or bacteria can cause very serious illness. Even if you aren’t sick, make sure you wash your hands very thoroughly when you enter the hospital room.
  • Also as a result of immunity concerns, it may not be appropriate to bring flowers or plants into the room of a patient with leukemia or lymphoma. Check with the nursing unit or a family member to see if it’s okay before you visit
  • Remember, it’s not about you. Make sure your conversation is focused on the patient, and not about your issues

What to Say

The best advice in this situation is to say how you feel. Are you thinking about them? Then say so. Do you care about them? Then say so. Are you sorry that they are going through this? Then say so. Don’t know what to say? Then say THAT.

Here are a few more starters:

  • I am here if you want to talk
  • I would like to help in any way I can
  • Are you up for having visitors?
  • Is there anyone else you would like me to contact?
  • This must be a hard thing to go through

What Not to Say

Sometimes it can be easier to know the right things to say than to know what not to say. Try not to get too caught up in this and follow a natural conversation. However, there are a few things to avoid:

  • Again, don’t make it about you or compare it to something you have been through
  • If they don’t want to talk, don’t force the issue. Just let them know that you available when and if they want to
  • Don’t try to find the positives. There isn’t much of a silver- lining to the diagnosis of a blood cancer, so avoid saying things like “It could be worse” or “At least it isn’t….” For the person with the disease, this is probably the worst- case scenario
  • At the same time, don’t express overly pessimistic opinions
  • Don’t leave if things get tough. If the person gets angry, let them vent. If they tell you they are afraid, open up the conversation so they can unload on you. “What are you most afraid of?” “What can I do to help with your fears?” These situations can be hard to manage, but put them right back in the patient’s court and let them do the talking. That way, you don’t need to worry about what to say
  • Avoid saying things that minimize what the patient is going through such as “Don’t worry”, “Everything is going to be okay”, or “Cheer up”
  • Nobody deserves to get cancer. Even if you believe that the person’s lifestyle choices contributed to their disease, or if you think it was “God’s will” that this happened- keep it to yourself

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