How to Talk To a Loved One with Cancer

 Someone you love has been given a very scary diagnosis. His or her life has suddenly taken a turn down a path no one wants to travel. What do you do? What do you say? Or not say? Some people have a natural ability to be supportive and say and do the right thing easily. But most of us could use some guidance. This subject has been coming up a lot lately, so here are some guidelines that I hope will help.

Q. “I don’t know what to say.” Some people will avoid the person who has recently experienced a scary diagnosis (or the death of a loved one), because they don’t know what to say. They fear saying the wrong thing or finding their brain frozen and unable to find words. It is very painful when a person is going through one of the toughest times of their life to have people avoid them. Do reach out to them, and simply express how sad you are to hear their news. The most important thing we can do is to show that we care.

Sometimes people will be afraid to mention the illness, thinking it will just make their friend think about it and upset them more. Believe me, they are already thinking about it. It’s better to acknowledge it than to avoid the “elephant in the room” that everyone knows is there.

Q. Are there some things to avoid saying? Yes, actually. Avoid saying, “I understand”, or “I know how you feel.” Everyone’s experience is different, and everyone’s feelings are different. Ask questions. Listen. And don’t feel like you have to provide answers.

Q. What about giving advice? If you want to tell your friend about a research study or some supplement that you’re sure will help, ask permission first. “Would you like to hear about a research study I heard about?” If they do, fine. But if they don’t, respect that. Some people like to hear everyone’s ideas and suggestions. Some people just feel bombarded and intruded upon. So ask first.

There are a lot of very difficult and important decisions to be made when someone gets a cancer diagnosis. We need to be respectful of the decisions that the patient makes, and not second-guess them, or tell them what we think they should have done differently. These decisions are hard enough already. Once again, if we are asked for our opinion, great. Otherwise we need to respect the choices made by our friend who is living through the illness.

Q. How do I know if my friend wants to talk about the cancer or not?
Well, one way is we can ask them. Another is we can ask a general question, such as “How are you doing today?” If they’re having a good day and want to talk about lighthearted things, they can. If they want to talk about their illness or their feelings, they can. One of the most important things we can do is listen. We can take their lead on what they want to talk about today. Some days our friend will want to talk about the illness and their feelings, and some days they will just want to talk about normal stuff.

Q. But won’t it seem like I’m trivializing their illness if I talk about day-to-day subjects? No, you don’t have to talk about the cancer all the time. It feels good just to talk about normal stuff, too.

Q. Should I try to be cheery? Sometimes being cheery is good, but it’s also important not to deny the reality your friend is experiencing. It’s better to avoid saying, “Everything will be fine”, or “It’s going to be okay”. It may or may not be true, and it can stop your friend from feeling they can talk to you. Although it’s difficult to talk about these things, follow your friend’s lead. Listen. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your own feelings of fear or sadness.

Q. How can I help? Least helpful is, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do”. If you really want to help, think of some specific things you could do for your friend, and offer to do them. For example, “Can I pick up Johnny at school for you today?”; “I’ll bring some dinner by this evening”,; “What errands can I run for you in town?”; or, “Do you need a ride to the doctor appointment?” This kind of help is really appreciated.

To sum up: be brave and don’t avoid your friend, listen and show support, ask questions and follow their lead, offer specific help (but not advice unless it’s asked for), and don’t expect yourself to be perfect. It’s okay to acknowledge your own feelings of awkwardness or sadness or fear, or whatever. Be real with your friend, and it will be appreciated and bring you closer.

Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at

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