While everyone’s cancer experience is totally unique, there are ways to become more empathetic during these conversations. If you're wondering how to talk about cancer, find out what’s best to say and best to avoid by reading below.
Upon learning that someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer it’s usually a shock. When attempting to communicate with that person it’s easy to become ‘tongue-tied’ and uncomfortable.
Often, common remarks can be misguided, misconstrued or even hurtful to the patient. Even with your best intentions, how do you best express yourself? You want to say the right thing but what if despite your authenticity it comes out wrong? How do you show that you want to be there for them in a loving, concerned way?
Here are some guidelines to help you have a more empathetic dialogue with a cancer patient:
Ask how they are feeling today.
Since each cancer is different and each cancer experience is different then it follows that each cancer survivor is different. While undergoing active treatment the patient can experience good and bad days from one day to the next. It can be a roller coaster ride
depending on how they are feeling both physically and emotionally. That is why if you ask, “How they are feeling today?” specifically instead of “How are you feeling?”, it will likely elicit a more accurate response. This allows for freer expression of their current status.
Be specific about offers to help.
If you want to do something to genuinely help a cancer patient ask them specifically about what they may want. Try to stay away from a generalized statement like “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.”. Although it is kind to offer, this becomes a burden for them to figure out what you can do. Instead of putting them on the spot, be precise with a few actions that you are comfortable providing. Ask what they need immediate help with knowing their particular circumstances. Offering cooked meals, childcare, housekeeping chores, running errands, transportation and taking them for doctor or treatment visits so they are not alone can be wonderful shows of support that are so tangible and meaningful.
Be in the moment, together, right now.
The best method to communicate with a cancer patient is to be fully present with them and not distracted. Become an active listener without any judgment. If they feel comfortable with your presence and can sense you are 100% with them, they will openly share their concerns. Sometimes just being heard is in itself the best validation. They have cancer, you can’t fix that or provide a cure, but you can give them the safe place to be understood. They know you can’t provide the solution but they need to know you ‘get it.’ These exchanges become very powerful and memorable.
Give acknowledgment for what they are doing.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis is life-altering and it becomes crystal clear that the patient must then become a fighter and hopefully win the battle. They are bombarded with warrior imagery and the media telling them to be brave
on a daily basis. This can make them feel more in control of their cancer. It can also make them feel that when they have a bad day they are handling it all wrong.
Although hearing people express the sentiment “You’re so strong!” can be sincere and heartfelt, it may indirectly feel like the survivor can’t display any vulnerability. As if showing weakness or experiencing setbacks during treatment might cause them to lose this so-called battle. Instead, it’s better to say “You are handling this with so much grace.” or “You are such an inspiration!”. Both of these encourage and salute them for their efforts despite their many ups and downs.
Do say something.
A lot of people are afraid and with fear of not knowing what to say or how to react when hearing the news. Cancer is a disease that is very confrontational. Even hearing the word is startling. Don’t ignore patients. Don’t be silent - this may unintentionally send them a message that may be misinterpreted as being uncaring. If you decide to stay away from them that is more about your own insecurities and fears. You are better off to say something rather than nothing. If you aren’t sure what or how to say something meaningful even with your most genuine intentions, just being there with them may be enough.
Ask yourself what you would want from others if you were diagnosed with cancer.
Do you have any tips for having better conversations with cancer patients from your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below!