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What to say (and not say) to a loved one with cancer

Photographee.eu /Shutterstock

Anna Gębalska-Berekets - published on 07/23/21

When a friend or family member is facing a serious illness, there are words you can speak to help them.

How can we accompany a loved one suffering from cancer? There’s no such thing as a ready-made miracle phrase that can provide relief. Healthy people giving long discourses about suffering to people who are sick can actually have the opposite effect of what was intended, and generally doesn’t offer them any comfort.

While the first thing to do is to remain humble when dealing with someone facing news as dizzying as that of possible impending death, there are some words to avoid and simple words that can be helpful. Here are some tips.

1What not to say

“I know how you feel right now.”

Unless you have (or have had) cancer too, you have no idea how a person with cancer feels. If you start a conversation this way, it’s very likely that your loved one will be irritated or even hurt.

It’s better to tell them that you can only imagine how they must be feeling. This is a way of acknowledging that the situation they’re facing is difficult, instead of pretending otherwise.

“I’m sure everything will be fine.”

You don’t know if it will be okay. Such a statement can be interpreted as an attempt to lessen the difficult emotions that people with cancer face every day. Your loved one will think you’re trying to trivialize their situation and their feelings.

“I know someone who …”

Every patient’s journey is different, so it’s important to avoid comparisons. Sharing examples of others is simply not helpful.

“You should take my advice.”

Don’t give advice unless you’re an oncologist or unless the sick person asks you to. Similarly, it’s best to avoid asking personal questions that will force your loved one to relive the pain and difficult memories of their diagnosis and treatment. The patient doesn’t want to go back to the most difficult moments of their recent life and experience panic attacks as a result.

“This is part of God’s plan for you.”

These kinds of statements suggest that God has chosen to punish a person with an illness. Not everyone is spiritual enough to see a mystical meaning to their suffering. For some people with a particular religious perspective, these words may be comforting, but for many people, they can be demoralizing and irritating.

2What to say that can help

Cancer causes isolation. The best thing you can do when someone you love is suffering is to tell them humbly and tenderly that you are there for them. It’s not about trying to reassure them about the future, but just to let them know that you’re present. Here are some words that can help:

“I’m here for you.”

The ill person wonders every day how their loved ones will cope with their illness. Knowing that they’re always there, present, is a great comfort.

“I love you.”

When nothing else comes to mind, these three words can do wonders! Especially since, if you’re accompanying a sick person going through a difficult time, you really mean it!

“If you need to talk, I’m here. I’m listening.”

The presence of someone who wants to listen to the patient is essential. People with cancer have many extreme emotions that need to be addressed.

At the same time, try to help your loved one not to fall into the belief that their life is only about being a cancer patient. In conversation, it’s important to focus on things that have nothing to do with the disease.

“What can I do for you?”

Dealing with physical symptoms and frequent visits to the doctor can be very hard to bear. Therefore, if you want to help your loved one, try offering to help with daily tasks. Be specific and take action! Clean the house, make tea, pick up the kids from school … Your help can be a great relief to the ill person!

“Have you heard the one about …”

Of course, cancer is no joke. But it’s good for a sick person to hear something simple, funny and lighthearted every now and then.

Cancer is a challenge not only for the person who’s ill but also for those around them. Talking about the disease isn’t easy, but there are words and gestures that can be very important in this fight.

Don’t forget: When someone is suffering in body and mind, gestures as simple as a smile or a hand on their shoulder are often essential. The person to whom they are offered feels the deep connection they express.

This connection protects them from the abyss of fear, anxiety and emptiness. It’s a kind of support that helps the sick person to fight against illness or to face their upcoming death more peacefully.

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