When a loved one has cancer: Communication dos and don’ts

When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, friends and family members often want to comfort them but may feel stumped by what to say. Many folks who are well-meaning can say things to the patient that, in fact, are not very supportive. Or you may avoid the patient because you don’t know what to say or do.

patient-friend-photoThis is a common concern but there are ways to make sure you are helping and not hurting the patient’s feelings. Here are some communication tips to help you better prepare to support a loved one with cancer.

Don’t say:
  • “I know how you feel.” Honestly, no one can ever really know exactly how someone feels. So to say this isn’t very helpful. Even those diagnosed with the same cancers can have different feelings and reactions to their diagnosis.
Instead say:
  • “I can’t imagine how you feel right now.” Then allow the patient an opportunity to perhaps share their own thoughts and emotions with you. This way, you let the patient lead the conversation, which can make them feel more comfortable to open up.
Don’t say:
  • “At least you don’t have ______ cancer.” All cancers are awful. All cancers are considered serious – regardless of the type. So saying this doesn’t benefit the patient, as it can minimize any pain or concerns they may have.
Instead say:
  • “Do you feel like speaking with me about your cancer?” Asking to learn more about a loved one’s cancer diagnosis and treatment options will show them you care and want to support them throughout their experience.
Don’t say:
  • “At least you’ve lost weight.” Commenting about a patient’s changed appearance can actually be painful reminders of how cancer has impacted their body. Saying this may seem like you aren’t taking seriously the physical toll that cancer imposes on those diagnosed.
Instead say:
  • “It is such a pleasure to see you today.” Or pay them a genuine, thoughtful compliment such as “Your smile always lights up the room.” This way you convey a positive sentiment to the patient without focusing on any altered appearances.
Don’t say:
  • “My friend had the same cancer, here’s what they did.” Telling the patient about someone else’s cancer or treatment doesn’t really help them process their own situation, as each cancer and each person are different. Trying to give second- or third-hand advice or anecdotes is often irrelevant or confusing for many cancer patients.
Instead say:
  • “My friend had the same cancer, but I know each person’s experience is individual. If you would like, I can get you in touch with him.” Offering to directly connect your loved one with someone who was also diagnosed might be helpful. But make sure you allow the patient to decide if that connection may be right for them or not.
Don’t say:
  • “Let me know if you need anything.” Although a kind offer, it’s too general and ambiguous. The patient likely already has a lot on their mind and may not easily recognize or state how you can specifically assist them.
Instead say:
  • “I’m bringing over dinner one evening this week – Is Wednesday OK?” or “I can pick up the kids after school so you can rest. They get out at 4 p.m., right?” Be specific and thoughtful when you offer help to loved ones facing cancer. This way, they can see your support is sincere and you are someone they can count on during tough times.

It’s important to keep in mind that support of any kind is far better than no support at all. Even if you don’t always say the right things, your presence, love, and genuine care is what patients value most.

Simply sitting quietly with your loved one during chemotherapy, listening to their daily frustrations, or holding them while they cry can provide much needed comfort.

See resources on caring for a loved one with cancer from the American Cancer Society and learn more about the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine.

-By Courtney Vastine, LMSW, OSW-C, licensed oncology social worker at Baylor

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