Did your friends, family and neighbors struggle with how to talk to you after your cancer diagnosis?
Cancer can be a touchy subject. It dominates patients’ lives, but does not have to dominate their relationships. Cancer patients strive for normalcy, but many times, the people around them — even the people who love them the most — struggle to find the right words to say. Their loved ones want to show that they care, but are unsure of the boundaries when it comes to conversations about cancer. “Is it rude to ask about his/her condition?” “Is it rude not to?” Many people tiptoe around cancer patients in fear of saying the wrong thing. To shed some light on this mystery, a young adult cancer patient shares his thoughts on the matter. This active-duty Navy serviceman, currently receiving treatment for stage IV lung cancer at the Walter Reed National Medical Center, discusses his take on the “right” and “wrong” things to say to cancer patients.
“How are you feeling?”
When you are sick, you know that you are sick, and you do not need to be reminded every waking moment that you are sick.Cancer patients are in pain. They are going through difficult treatments that change their bodies and attitudes. Asking someone with cancer, “How are you feeling?” may come across as insulting and annoying, since the answer is quite obvious — “Not too great.” Try to avoid this pleasantry in order to avoid consequent unpleasantries. “Asking someone how [he/she] [is] feeling is the most annoying thing you can do. Especially if someone asks me every day — I just want to choke [him/her]. What people don’t realize is that when you are on chemotherapy, your life is about one thing — the pain and nausea. Add steroids on top of that and you become the most irritable, short-fused person there is. I remember one time, I got super annoyed just because someone next to me was breathing too hard.”
“I’m sorry for you.”
Cancer patients rely on their strength and determination during the fight against cancer. Belittling them with pity is no way to their hearts. Just because they are going through a tough battle, doesn’t mean that they are any weaker than the rest. If anything, cancer makes them stronger, and that is nothing to be sorry about. “I don’t let people say, ‘I’m sorry for you,’ or feel pity because I know I’m going to be fine. I’m 20 years old and cancer is only one of the many trials and tribulations I have and will face in my lifetime.”
“Did you know…?”
Most cancer patients try to know everything there is to know about their particular disease. They speak daily with doctors, nurses and other experts, in addition to researching the latest developments on their own time. When offering advice, keep in mind that they are more familiar with their disease and treatments than you are. Some cancer patients reject all advice, but others welcome tips or ideas that may not have been considered before. It is important to know your audience and decide whether or not your opinion is wanted. “I think asking about natural foods is ok because if you know something I don’t about my type of cancer, which is unlikely, then please tell me. I believe that eating certain foods often can increase the effectiveness of the chemo or reduce the symptoms.”
“You’ll beat this. You’ll be fine.”
Repetition strikes again! Although words of encouragement and optimism can boost patients’ confidence, they start to lose value when they are overused. Cancer patients hold on to the vision of a healthy, cancer-free future. They repeatedly tell themselves that they will beat the cancer and be fine; however, hearing others say the same thing over and over again can get a little old. “I think saying ‘you’ll beat this’ or ‘you’ll be fine’ is OK in small doses (HA excuse my pun). I hate it when some caring person tells me that several times is a conversation or multiple people tell me in a short period of time.”
“Let me help with X, Y, and Z.”
Even if your intentions are good, asking a cancer patient, “Do you need help with anything?” can make him/her feel weak and incompetent. Instead of presenting general offers of help, which are usually shot down, you should provide specific actions that you can do to help. For example, you could say that you are going to make the family dinner on a certain night. This offer is planned and practical — and hard to resist.
“I don’t know what to say…”
One of the best things you can do is be honest and be yourself. It is often difficult to decipher what the “right” thing to say during certain situations is. Embracing the truth can release some of the awkward tension and allow you to act naturally around your loved one, therefore allowing you to continue your usual discussions of the latest trends, movies and of course, gossip. Even if you still struggle to be yourself, the most important thing you can do is show your loved one that you care. “Sometimes the best support you can give is just [to] be there with them and [not] say anything.”
Following these guidelines will make it easier to figure out exactly what to say — and not say — to cancer patients, and will make conversations more enjoyable for all parties involved. However, do not feel pressured to say the most inspirational, thoughtful or comforting phrase ever to be voiced. Keep it real. Speak from your heart. If you really care, then your love and support will show no matter what you say.