A cancer diagnosis comes with many questions for both patients and the people who care about them. Often, family and friends don’t know what to say, so they say nothing or make well-meaning comments that aren’t received as expected.
“Patients often tell me, ‘How does he or she know I’ll be OK?’ when talking about someone who said to them, ‘You’ll get through this,’” says Cara Fairfax, MSW, LCSW, cancer patient navigator at the Douglas & Nancy Barnhart Cancer Center at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “The challenge is that although talking about feelings is important for facing adversity and crisis, different people have different coping abilities.”
Below, Fairfax and patients offer advice for how to talk about cancer.
What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when talking to someone who has cancer?
Cara Fairfax, cancer patient navigator: Everyone is different, so it’s difficult to know what people want to hear. There is no training manual. Ask each other what’s OK to talk about and what’s not OK to talk about right now. Listen first; when you do speak, repeat back what your loved one said to you. This is called reflection, which gives you something to say and makes the person who said it feel heard.
Brian, diagnosed in 2012: I think it’s just as important for the patient to be mindful of what the person on the receiving end of the news of a cancer diagnosis is processing. They will be scared and worried. Forgive them when they don’t understand. Exercise patience.
Is there anything wrong to say to someone who has cancer?
Rob, diagnosed in 2011: The interjection of someone’s personal beliefs bothered me because I have different beliefs. Also, because my tumor was in my lung, I got the “Were you a smoker?” question a lot. The stigma that comes with pulmonary cancers was hard to bear.
Fairfax: Don’t give advice unless it’s requested. Listen, reflect and listen some more. If you have a related story to tell, ask first if the person wants to hear it. People generally like to hear others’ experiences with cancer, but in their own time.
What was the most meaningful thing someone said or did after being diagnosed?
Snooky, diagnosed in 2013: In my opinion, it’s not the words you say, but what you are willing to do. I was blessed to have a few people walk with me through the process, including being there during my chemotherapy appointments. They were my advocates and present from beginning to end.
Fairfax: Patients tell me they appreciated hearing, “I don’t know what to say” or “I don’t have the right words — is it OK to talk about your cancer diagnosis?” They appreciate the honesty of those words. Other tips are to make eye contact, use touch and ask “What do you need?” They may not know what they need; you can say, “I’m here for you when you think of something.”
Rob: I didn’t know what I wanted people to say to me because it changed minute to minute, hour to hour. The greatest thing someone can do is listen — listen with empathy; listen to understand, not to respond, and have patience.
Snooky: Hearing encouraging words was very meaningful. I remember having a hard time with the chemo and wanting to quit. My doctor told me that chemo is not meant to make you feel good; it’s meant to kill the cancer, which is why it’s so important. She told me there were women much older than me going through it, which gave me hope for what my body was able to tolerate. There is always hope even when there seems to be none.
Sharp HealthCare offers free support groups in English and Spanish for patients diagnosed with cancer and their loved ones. Visit our classes and events page for more information.
For the news media: To talk with Cara Fairfax for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.