What do you say to someone who has cancer? It's so deeply personal and everyone experiences it differently. This fact makes it hard to give well-meaning support. Are you scared you are going to say something totally stupid, offensive, or even make your friend cry? If you are at a loss for words, let's chat.
At age 32, I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. One of the things that struck me the most is how tough it was to have genuine conversations with friends and colleagues after my cancer diagnosis. There is no other way to say it... people just get awkward. It's well-meaning, and no one sets out to be this way... we just don't know how to talk to people with cancer. The fear of saying something wrong paralyzes us.
So if you find yourself lacking the right words to say to a friend with cancer, here are some things that could help.
1. "I'm sorry. I really don't know what to say or do, but I love you and I'm going to be here for you."
There is power in expressing the truth; it's tough to know what to say or what do when you haven't been there yourself. People with cancer don't expect you to know. We get that it can be awkward, but it's okay. It's okay to just admit you're vulnerable and that you feel nervous and helpless. With that being said... remember it's not about you. There is discomfort for everyone and admitting that is refreshing. The truth is stronger than cliché words of encouragement.
2. "Guess what happened at work," or "OMG do you remember that one time we did X!"
Just talk about regular stuff! When you have cancer it can be the only thing you think or talk about and believe me, it gets old. It can feel like cancer has swallowed your whole life. Having a friend talk to you the way they always have is a nice way to have a break from cancer. You don't have to overthink it. Just be you.
3. "I just wanted to say hello."
Maintain contact at all costs, even if you feel awkward. I can't tell you how many times that I've heard from other people with cancer that the most hurtful thing that happened to them during cancer was that people reached out initially and then just dropped off the face of the earth. Cancer makes you feel isolated and a friend fleeing compounds that loneliness. Don't feel like you have to have something profound to say. Just your presence is enough. Check in regularly to show you haven't forgotten.
4. "I'm going to the grocery store. Do you need anything?"
It's a great way to check in and also lend a hand. It doesn't matter where you are going just offer to do something concrete. Maybe it's walking the dog or maybe it's bringing a meal, or maybe it's picking up their child from school. If they say no, you can let them know you will check again later to see if you can be helpful. This replaces the common, "let me know if you need anything," because very few people are going to want to bother you or have you go out of your way without something specific being offered.
5. "I'm here to listen. Feel free to cry with me, to talk or not to talk."
This shows your friend that you are taking their lead. Just listening and being supportive is paramount. Sometimes a person just needs to vent about life with cancer or needs to cry over a bad scan. You should not feel like you need to offer advice. "I'm listening and sorry you are having to go through this" goes a long way.
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