Although it’s been a few years since my cancer diagnosis, I can remember many awkward attempts at consolation made by well-meaning folks. Based on those memories, I’ve compiled a few ideas to help you know what NOT to say should you learn that a friend or acquaintance has been diagnosed with the dreaded “C” word.
I seriously cannot emphasize this one enough. You’d think that common sense would negate the need to say “don’t share your cancer horror stories,” but, alas, it does not. What possible good can come from telling someone who’s in a battle for their life about your Aunt Jane whose cancer didn’t respond to chemo and spread so quickly that she died unexpectedly within months of her diagnosis?
Instead: Share a story of someone you know who beat cancer and is still going strong years later. If you don’t know a survivor, then rest in the knowledge that no story is better than the wrong story.
Don’t offer treatment advice.
This is a tough one because I know that advice is offered from a heart that cares and wants to help. Unfortunately, a cancer diagnosis brings with it unbelievable amounts of information that need to be processed by an already overwhelmed mind. It’s very likely that any advice you offer will not only fall on deaf ears, it will add unnecessary confusion.
Instead: Let her know that you have information that you believe will be helpful and offer to share it with her. If she’s interested, she’ll get with you. If not, don’t be insulted…this is her battle and she has to fight it her way.
Don’t make open-ended offers.
“Let me know if you need anything” may seem like a helpful offer, but it really isn’t. Everybody says that. Not everybody means it. Now your friend, who very likely is already concerned about becoming a burden to others, is faced with the task of expending precious energy deciding who really wouldn’t mind her calling on them.
Instead: Offer specific help, while still allowing her choices. Something like, “What night next week can I bring you supper?” or “I’d like to come over tomorrow and take care of your laundry. What time’s best for you?” goes much further than a generic offer. Or, with your friend’s permission, you could even go a step further and implement a reader suggested idea of setting up an account with CareCalendar to organize meals and household help.
While you may mean well, now is not the time to say, “Oh, well at least your cancer isn’t like my cousin’s. She…..” Cancer is cancer and its effects are relative to each individual.
Remember: Cancer is not a contest.
And, finally, don’t feel that you need to say something profound.
A simple, sincere declaration of “I’m so sorry you’re facing this” coupled with a hug or a hand squeeze is more powerful than you’d ever imagine.
Sometimes less really is more.