Talking about cancer can be hard. We get it.
Often, if a loved one has been diagnosed, finding the words and knowing what to say can feel like a minefield.
We asked members of the War On Cancer community to share with us the things they think you should never say to someone with cancer; and the things you can say instead.
Tell someone they don’t look sick/like they have cancer.
Cancer doesn’t have one ‘look’ and neither does being sick. Whilst you may think you’re saying it in a positive way, more often than not it can leave the other person feeling invalidated. Just because you don’t ‘look’ sick doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. and like they’re not ‘cancer’ enough.
Keep repeating how ‘strong’ they are.
For many people impacted by cancer, they don’t feel “strong” a lot of the time. Though you have the best intentions, it can just remind the person of what they’re dealing with and sometimes, how weak they feel. For many, they’re just doing the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. Instead, ask if there is any additional support you can give them to help lighten the load. The best way to support is to offer what you know you can help with, rather than have them come up with something. For example, “I’ve made a home-cooked meal, can I bring you some tonight?’
Refer to others who have had bad experiences or say who you know that’s died because of cancer.
This one probably goes without saying, but it’s just not helpful. Cancer can be scary and overwhelming, the last thing people need are stories about how others fared. In addition, every person and cancer experience is unique, and by bringing up others’ situations causes people to compare, which is never helpful.
Start reeling off information or comparing treatments.
When it comes to cancer there’s just so much information to take on board that it can start to feel never ending. Unless they ask, leave the advice and information to a person’s medical team and instead, keep talking about all the things you did before cancer became a part of the picture!
Simply ask ‘How are you?’
Never underestimate the power this question can have. Reach out, check in and be there to listen when they tell you how they’re doing. The answers might just surprise you.
Remember that even the smallest of gestures go a long way.
Picking up some shopping. Delivering a home cooked meal. Giving them a quick call. Little gestures can have a big impact on someone with cancer. When it feels like the rug has been pulled from under you, having people there to support you with the little things makes all the difference.
You don’t always have to have something to say. Sometimes, just letting the other person know that you are there and that you’re ready to support them whenever needed is all it takes. Keep inviting them to places too, even if they’re too unwell to come. Feeling included and part of a social context is super important to a person’s mental wellbeing.
It’s ok if you don’t know what to say, sometimes things in life are big and difficult and scary and words can fail us. Just be honest. Tell them you don’t know what to say, but that you’re right there for them. Let’s normalise having conversations about cancer in a way that’s honest and vulnerable, even if it’s hard.
Of course, everyone is different and there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to talking to someone about their cancer diagnosis. Just continue being there, and, if in doubt, remember the power of a simple ‘how are you?’