We’re Not All Stupid!: So What DO You Say or Do When Someone Tells You They’ve Been Diagnosed With Cancer?

Well, I wrote a post about the importance of not saying stupid things when you hear your friend has cancer.

And I received a bunch of e-mails in response to it, probably because a bunch of people were thinking [and I include myself among this select group]: Hey! Is she talking about me? I say those things!

Well, we all do. And we don’t mean to make the top of these lists of what not to say to cancer patients–we just don’t know what else to say.

So what do we say when we hear news like this?

Let me throw out some ideas–and see if you can take it from there.

For example, here’s a response that gets me, but could so easily be turned around.

“Let me know what I can do,” people offer.

The fact is that your friend, having just received a diagnosis of cancer, doesn’t know at all what she needs, even in terms of the major things, like treatment, and job plans, and dealing with her children. Just find something she needs and do it. Tell her you’re taking over her after-school carpools–no discussion. Cook a meal for dinner you know she and her family loves and bring it–every Thursday, so she knows to expect it and doesn’t have to prepare.  Get her grocery-shopping list and get hers when you get yours–regularly. Sign on to drive your friend to her chemotherapy appointments.

Don’t ask–as Nike says, just do it.

And recognize that it’s okay not to know what to say–and to say that. This is an honest, from-the-heart answer, because, really we DON’T know what to say, which is why we come out with the bloopers from “You Will Never Go Broke Underestimating the Intelligence of the American Public:” Things People Say To Those With Cancer. People understand that we’re struggling to find the right thing to say–and it’s better to ‘fess up about our inabilities, than try an “Oh, no! My friend Beth died from that!” type response.

In terms of the loserish “God tests those he loves,” Seana Roubinek and Patricia Walters-Fischer suggest in their post “My Best Friend Has Cancer” – What To Say.. And What Not To Say” to simply say, “‘I’m so sorry, would you mind if I prayed for you or set up a prayer chain?'” Simply be prepared to accept it if the person says no.

In her post Actually Awesome Things to Say to a Cancer Patient, Virginia C. McGuire has some, well, actually awesome suggestions, and one of my favorites of hers is this: Ask your friend, and be open to a ‘no’ response, “Is this a good time for you to talk about it,” or, if you’ve just heard, “Do you feel like talking about it?” You might be ready to hear all the details and have your friend go into a long spiel about mass sizes and statistics and tumor locations and treatment options–but your friend might just have gone into that with the previous people she told–or her previous visitors–and would rather discuss the latest she’s seen on the cooking channel. Be open to that.

Related to that, I’d recommend in general building an arsenal of topics that will take you through any occasion, and this probably precludes major terrorist attacks, wars between Hutus and Tutsis, and anything that involves genocide. If you’re to talk normally to your friend, either when you’ve just heard her news, or when you spend time with her as her illness progresses, you’ll have to have some easy chatter that helps her pass the time, isn’t about her illness–and isn’t about our country’s impending doom as Iran once again declares death to its enemies.

It’s okay to discuss normal topics from everyday life-the kids’ soccer games, your aggravation with Mrs. Holmes the 4th grade teacher who doesn’t recognize your child’s genius, your husband’s horrible gaffe at the law firm’s Christmas party and how you now believe he’ll never make partner. Don’t fall into the trap of only discussing your friend’s illness, or thinking she doesn’t want to hear about ‘normal’ life.

And one of my favorite of Ms. McGuire’s suggestions is her ‘say nothing’ approach. Of course this doesn’t work when your friend just shares her news with you. An acceptable response to hearing your friend has cancer is not to sit their catching flies with your mouth. But perhaps after an, “I’m so so sorry; I just don’t know what to say,” it’s okay to be quiet and sad with your friend–and maybe even to hold her for a moment, if she’s the type, instead of launching into your “Everything will be fine” routine.

Do you know how much this session is worth?! (image from freedigitalphotos.net)

Finally, in a clever and sharp-tongued piece entitled Things People Say to Breast Cancer Patients….., Ann writes that the thing to say when you hear someone has cancer is nothing but “I’m sorry.”

Keeping your responses ‘un-stupid’ as time goes on is crucial, too. Instead of walking in to visit armed with a notebook of research you’ve got on treatments for your friend’s disease and launching into that topic, why not ask first if she’d like to hear about a study you just heard about? Taking your friend’s lead on what she’d like to discuss in general is a great idea.

I also find it’s important to support your friend’s decisions, even if you disagree with them. If he decides to forego the latest experimental treatment, don’t push and nag. Don’t tell him about Uncle Eddie who was cured by hanging by his toenails. The patient is in charge, and it’s important that you show you’re behind him and his decisions, instead of being the chronic second-guesser.

I know P.T. Barnum said you couldn’t go broke underestimating the average American’s intelligence–and sometimes he’s right. But if you take a few moments and anticipate what your friend might not want to hear, and incorporate some of these suggestions into your verbal bag of tricks instead, you might just prove old Barnum wrong.

Submitted in response to a question on my original post, asking  what TO say to a cancer patient, by ruo twocone:

“my wife has stage IV colon cancer. things she’s loved hearing/seeing from others: “the way you are handling everything, you are such an inspiration to me” “that’s  over there. she’s our little warrior princess” (overheard at the hospital from the next room over) when people just bring stuff over. i’m a terrible cook (other than mac n cheese!), and my wife can’t get out of bed for a few days while she’s on chemo. it’s been amazing having people just show up with food for us and our daughter. in the 6 months since her diagnosis we’ve received over 50 meals from friends and family. a lot of people ask what they can do, but we don’t always know how to ask. so don’t ask, just do something – make a meal or bring over a little gift basket. that has been what means the most.”

Thank you, Ruo.

See also:

“Gifts for Cancer Patients” at http://www.squidoo.com/CancerGiftIdeas#module41341412. This lens, while not exactly about what to say, still has some wonderful ideas of how to give of yourself with your time, and of what to give in terms of gifts. It’s practical, useful, and unsentimental.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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