When someone you know has cancer, you feel helpless and powerless. Here’s what to say and how to help someone with cancer – these practical and specific tips are from a writer and cancer survivor.
“When everyone else flees, be the one who stays,” writes Regina Brett in Be the Miracle: 50 Lessons for Making the Impossible Possible. She says she’s always wanted to give people a ‘cheat sheet’ on what to say to people who have cancer. In Be the Miracle, she shares how to help someone with cancer, including what to and what not to say throughout the course of the diagnosis and chemotherapy treatments.
If you know a woman who has breast cancer, read 17 Gift Ideas for Women After a Single or Double Mastectomy. Even if you’re not looking for gifts for someone with cancer, read that article because it describes what women go through after breast cancer surgery. It’ll give you a new appreciation and respect for cancer treatments and women who survive the disease. And, your newfound respect will help you know what to say and how to help someone with cancer.
What NOT to Say to Someone With Cancer
These tips are inspired by Brett’s advice on what to do and how to help someone after a cancer diagnosis. She starts with what NOT to say to someone with cancer…
Don’t share nightmarish cancer stories
When my friend had cancer, some people told her horror stories about painful chemotherapy treatments, inept nurses, and inconsiderate oncologists. They even talked about how terrible it is to die from cancer!
Don’t be that girl. Instead, stay positive, hopeful, and optimistic. Acknowledge the pain that a cancer diagnosis brings, but don’t add to the grief by telling sad stories. And, don’t overreact and jump from cancer diagnosis to death. Cancer is no longer the death sentence it used to be.
Don’t offer medical advice on how to beat cancer
“Whether you agree with them or not, respect the choices she has made,” writes Brett in Be the Miracle.
You aren’t the oncologist, so don’t offer cancer-fighting tips or discourage someone with cancer from pursuing chemotherapy, radiation, or other treatment choices. If you want to know how to help someone with cancer, learn how to support and accept without judging or opining.
Don’t tell her how tired or terrible she looks
Cancer-fighting treatments are hell on the body, brain, and soul. It’s not helpful to point out how tufty her hair is or how skinny the chemotherapy treatments have made her.
Knowing how to help someone with cancer is about giving supportive gifts that are both emotional and practical. Read Get Well Soon Messages and Gifts for Cancer Patients for ideas.
Don’t ask personal medical questions
For me, this is the most important tip on what to say to someone with cancer. I’m curious (nosy) and inquisitive. I have to hold myself back from asking questions that only doctors, nurses, oncologists, spouses, and close family members should ask about cancer and treatments.
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“Allow the patient some privacy,” writes Brett. “Some people with cancer want to keep their medical situations private. Others go public. Each person has the right to keep quiet or shout it from the rooftops.”
No matter how you would deal with cancer (or how you survived your own fight with cancer!), you need to respect the journey of others. One of the most important ways to help someone with cancer is to put aside your personality and perspectives, and try to see through patient’s eyes.
How NOT to Help Someone Who Has Cancer
Everyone is different, but these general tips on how to help people after they were diagnosed with cancer will give you ideas about how to offer your support.
“Cancer brings out the best and the worst in people,” writes Brett. “When it came to my friends, cancer separated the weak from the strong.”
Some friends flee after the diagnosis, partly because they don’t know what to say or how to help someone with cancer. Or they’re scared…or they can’t bear to see what cancer, chemotherapy, and other treatments do. One of the most important tips on how to help someone with cancer is to stay connected.
Don’t take things personally
Cancer makes people angry, exhausted, scared, depressed, irritated, stressed, and sad. If you want to help someone with cancer, don’t let his behavior determine your actions. If he’s grumpy or snappy, remember that he is physically and emotionally worn out.
Be the person who not only stays through the calm, but who also stays through the storm of chemo and other cancer treatments. Learn how to help someone with cancer from your patient’s perspective – not from your own preferences or viewpoints.
Don’t rush patients to discuss something they’re not ready for
“After my friend Monica ended up in hospice care, she still talked about getting the next chemotherapy treatments,” writes Brett. “We knew there weren’t going to be any more, but we allowed her to hope. We didn’t have to remind her she was dying.”
Brett adds that Monica was 39, and still wanted to marry and have children one day. Brett listened and encouraged her to relax so she could get her energy back.
Her friends helped her savor every meal, every visitor, every ray of sunshine coming into her room – without dashing her hope for the future – before she died.
What to Say and How to Help Someone With Cancer
Many of us don’t know what to do when we can’t think of anything to say in the best of times. Here are the best things to say to someone with cancer…
Say “I’m here for you”
There are no perfect or exactly right words to say to someone with cancer. Saying “I’m here for you” is the best tip on what to say – but only if you mean it! Stay in touch, even if your emails, text messages, phone calls, or visits aren’t returned.
“Sometimes no words are best,” writes Brett in Be the Miracle. “Your presence alone matters more than anything you could say. Keep in touch, even when the patient is too tired to talk, even if he falls asleep every time you visit, cancels plans, and doesn’t return calls.”
Offer specific ways to help someone with cancer
Instead of asking what you can do, ask if you can drive him to the chemotherapy treatments, oncologist’s appointments, or pharmacy. Ask if you can make chicken broth or do a load of laundry. Look at the patient’s life: are there pets, children, aging parents, homes, gardens, or ailing partners that need attention?
You might consider sharing that you don’t know how to help someone with cancer, but you are there for the patient. Ask him to help you know what to say and how to be supportive.
Support the cancer patient’s caregiver
“Give the caregiver a chance to go for a walk, take a nap, and talk about something besides cancer,” writes Brett. “Set up a plan for the food committee to drop off meals. Help set up a CaringBridge website, Facebook page, or a blog to communicate easily to friends and family.”
Read 10 Thoughtful Gifts for Caregivers for ideas on how to help someone with cancer by supporting her caregiver.
Help someone with cancer delegate duties
This is one of the most practical tips on how to help someone with cancer, especially if they don’t have a caregiver: Make a list of what the cancer patient needs and wants, then make a list of family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors who might be the best people to meet those needs and wants.
Brett suggests organizing people into “committees.” For instance, the Beauty Committee helped pencil in her eyebrows, tie her head scarf, and pick the right earrings to soften the glare of her bald head. The Food Committee took care of meals and snacks; the Entertainment Committee provided Netflix movies, magazines, and library books. The Spiritual Committee offered prayer, yoga, journaling, music therapy, Reiki, and inspirational sermons on podcasts.
You may not feel like prayer is a good tip on how to help someone with cancer, but you’d be surprised at how powerful the words “I’m praying for you” are! Even to agnostics (for, as they say, there are no agnostics in a foxhole).
I pray for strength, courage, and wisdom for both you and the cancer patient. May you take time to connect with God. May you rely on His love, compassion, and wisdom to see you through this cancer journey. I pray for energy, sustenance, and peace. May you take time to connect with Jesus, and know you don’t have to face this alone. May the Holy Spirit sustain and guide you, flow though you to touch everyone around you.
If the family member of a coworker, neighbor, or friend has been diagnosed with cancer, read How to Comfort a Friend Whose Mom Has Cancer.
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When everyone else flees, be the one who stays. Listen with your heart, not just your ears.