Cancer Conversations: What to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer

Angela Heller, Oncology Social Worker at NYP/Columbia

Cancer is frightening experience for everyone involved. Illness and death make many uncomfortable. According to Angela Heller, oncology social worker at NYP/Columbia, it’s often more difficult for the caretaker than the patient to cope when facing these challenging times. It is normal to feel sorrow, fear, awkwardness, or even guilt at being healthy.

Some people find it so uncomfortable to be with a sick or suffering loved one that they may withdraw or virtually disappear. Still others may remain present, but find it painfully awkward. Or, they may unwittingly say things that upset their loved one even more, despite their good intentions.

In difficult times, how can we best support a loved one?

Bottom line: be there even if you are afraid of saying the wrong thing, says Heller.

Remember, it is a basic human need to be heard and understood. This fundamental truth provides an excellent place to start. If nothing else, you can simply say that you don’t know what to say, but that you’re there for them.  Similarly, offer compassion through statements such as “I am sorry that this is happening to you,” or “I am thinking of you.”

Everyone will be slightly different in what they need and what they find comforting. So, take a step back, really listen to them, and make sure that you’re actually helping rather than answering to your own discomfort. Ask permission before visiting, giving advice, or even asking questions. Should you seek to help with more than words, be specific with how you may be of help, such as bringing a meal on a particular day, assisting with cleaning their house, or taking care of children – rather than just telling the person to ‘let me know if you need anything.’

It may be best to avoid saying things like, “everything is going to be all right.” Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, who recently faced similar grief in her family, put it eloquently: “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.” (see her full essay here)

And while it may seem empathetic to volunteer examples of other friends or family who have cancer, everyone's case is different (even those with the same disease), and those stories and advice are sometimes more harmful than helpful. No matter how tempting it may be to share those reference points, remember that your loved one’s situation is unique, and how he or she fares should not be compared to another person.

As one patient reminds readers, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel, remember that it’s not about you – it’s about the patient. When in doubt, simply ask, “how are you today?” and listen to what they have to say.

To learn more about the diverse resources and extensive network of people available to help you get through your experience, please visit: Supportive Care & Oncology Resources at Columbia University Medical Center.

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