WHAT TO SAY (AND NOT SAY) TO A CANCER PATIENT
Until I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was one of those people. The ones who don’t know what to say when someone says they have cancer. Since I’m an uber-extrovert who’s worked in Hollywood for twenty years, I’d usually try something like, “Oh no, are you okay?” or, “How did you make it through?” or, “You look great—I never would have known.” All cringeworthy lines bordering on insensitive or inappropriate. But I didn’t want to freeze up or seem uninterested, and I really did care how they were. I just didn’t know how to communicate that. Until the day everything changed.
On April 20, 2020, about a month into what felt like an endless COVID lockdown with two small children, we were struggling to balance working from home with preschool via Zoom. Suddenly, I felt a lump. Though I’d had an “all clear, come back in a year” mammogram in February, I followed my gut and scheduled another one that week. And then an ultrasound. And then a biopsy. Two days and a million prayers later, my doctor told me I had breast cancer. Stage 2B/3A. Signs of at least one lymph node. Mastectomy. Chemo. Surgery. Radiation. Words I’d only heard used about other people—my mom’s friends or my friends’ moms. But not me. I was a 44-year-old studio executive, a loving wife and daughter, and a working mom who traveled the world. Yet in that one instant, I was none of those things—only scared.
Within two weeks, I was sitting in a chemo chair after telling my parents, my employer, and my closest friends. By then, I could pretty much get through “the talk” on auto-pilot, but whenever I did, I almost felt like another person. One who wasn’t scared, who could bluff her way through. “I’m learning a lot,” I would say. “It’s good to slow down, to take a step back for a while.” “They said it’s totally treatable—don’t worry.” I found myself becoming a grief counselor to my loved ones. And in return, they would say, “Let me know if there’s anything you need.” It’s something I heard about a thousand times—and I hated it. Because I had no idea what I needed. I’d never been there before.
But then I started talking to other cancer patients. Women who’d been through all the treatments and were now there, talking to me. They talked about how brutal it was and how terrible they felt, yet those words were what finally brought me comfort. Because in spite of everything, they were the embodiment of hope: they’d survived. The worst-case scenarios hadn’t played out for them. They didn’t sugarcoat anything, but the worse their stories were, the better I felt—not because it was hard for them, but because it suddenly became ok that it was hard for me. I was in the club, and even though it wasn’t one I’d signed up for, it was one I was glad to have found. They knew what to say. And now I do, too.
5 THINGS TO SAY TO CANCER PATIENTS
- Yeah, that’s rough. I went through that, too.
- Survivors know how to use their stories to help others. Rather than minimizing what someone’s going through, your stories can reassure them that you’ve been there, and that they’re okay.
- If you aren’t a survivor, say something like, “That sounds really rough. I know someone who went through that. Do you want to talk to her?” Try to make those connections because as a patient, they’re invaluable.
- Here’s something that worked for me.
- Product recommendations are key. There are so many small, at-home side effects that patients need to manage, and survivors know what works and what doesn’t.
- If you aren’t a survivor, seek out blogs and other resources by those who are, and look for recommendations about their favorite products. Then buy and send those, along with where you found them. Those stories and products will really help.
- You’ve got this. You look great.
- This works best for survivors but applies to everyone: stay upbeat and positive. Set aside any uncertainty and sadness you may be feeling and focus on being reassuring, encouraging, confident, and hopeful. They’re already feeling all of that same uncertainty and sadness—they need the opposite.
- How are you doing?
- There may be things you want to know about their treatment, what the doctors are saying, or what’s next on their calendar, but please resist and stick with a simple “How are you doing?” or “How are you?” And lose the sad eyes and overly sympathetic tones. Instead, be friendly and matter-of-fact.
- OR Don’t say anything at all…just do it.
- I’m bringing dinner and will drop it off. Anything sound good to you?
- Not everyone is good at accepting help, and anyone in chemo is already having a hard time eating, so don’t ask. Just do. Soups are always a winner. Avoid anything spicy, greasy, or heavy.
- I’m reaching out to your partner; we’ll handle it.
- Whoever is living with the patient will likely know what might lift their spirits, so reach out and don’t be shy. Even if they don’t have all the answers, they’ll welcome help with the things they can’t do because of daily care-giving.
- Can I watch your kids? I’m bringing them something fun.
- If the patient has kids, pets, or others they need to care for, try relieving some of that load. Offer to babysit, bring water balloons (summer), or take them sledding (winter)—anything that’ll make the kiddos happy. You’ll help lift everyone’s spirits more than you can imagine.
5 THINGS NOT TO SAY TO CANCER PATIENTS
- What stage are you? Are you going to be okay? When is your next treatment?
- These fall into the category of “medical details they’ll share if they want to.” If someone’s going through treatment, they’re already thinking about it 24/7 and talking to medical staff nonstop. They’ll share when and if they want to, so stick with something broader like, “How are you doing today?”
- How can I help? What do you need?
- While this may come from a good place, please don’t use it. It puts the responsibility on a patient who doesn’t know what they’re doing or what they’ll need. And when you don’t hear from them, it gives you an out to just do nothing. Instead, be proactive—read blogs, find solutions, and offer specific options.
- I feel so terrible for you. I’m so sorry.
- Don’t go the sympathy—or the pity—route. Yes, it’s terrible. Yes, you feel bad. But guess what? It’s a lot worse for them. Be upbeat, active, and optimistic. Down the road when they’re better, you can talk about how scary it was for both of you. Until then, stay positive.
- I’m here, can you come out? I’ll call you.
- These fall into the category of unexpected intrusions, so please avoid them. Instead, try things that allow the patient to come back to you on their own time, when they’re feeling good. Because when it’s bad, it can be really bad.
- If they’re single, they might welcome some quality one-on-one time. Just be sure they’re truly up for it, both physically and mentally. Offer options that are easy to handle, like chatting over a warm drink or bringing dinner and a movie.
- I’ve Googled that—it sounds horrible!
- Patients quickly learn that Google is not their friend after a cancer diagnosis, and so should you. Everything sounds scary, and you’ll inevitably find a worst-case scenario. Each patient has a team of medical professionals advising them every day, so let them do their job and focus on what you do best—being a friend!