What to say or not to say
It is always very difficult to know what to say when a
friend or loved one is diagnosed with cancer. Below are some
tips about what you should or should not say to a cancer
- Don’t mention the cancers or serious
illnesses of other people you know as a comparison or to try
to show a good outcome. Your friend/loved one is a different
person and might not have the same outcome. If you know
someone else with a similar story ask your friend if they
would like to talk to that person.
- Don’t suggest you know what it is like.
You may empathise with their plight but you don’t “know” it.
Ask them about how they feel instead. Ask them if they want
to talk about it. But don’t pressure them if they say no.
- There are not any good cancers. Even
the ones with the lowest death rate and highest cure rate
are frightening to the patient. Don’t try to diminish their
fear by telling them that it could be worse if they had a
- A patient will experience some physical
changes. Don’t try to diminish how they feel, by saying
things like, “Well at least the weight loss is a good thing”
- Do not offer any advice about
alternative therapies and other treatment options. You are
not a doctor. Leave medical advice to the professionals.
- Never suggest the patient is to blame
due to their lifestyle habits. A lifetime smoker or drinker
does not need to be told it is all their fault, especially
since it may not have anything to do with their lifestyle.
- Do not pressure the patient to keep a
positive attitude, nor ever suggest it will improve their
odds. Just because a person feels depressed does not mean
they deserve to lose the fight. Read this article about the
“tyranny of positive thinking”
The tyranny of positive thinking
Jimmie Holland MD wrote a book, "The
Human side of cancer" with a chapter called "The Tyranny
of positive thinking". It addresses the stress cancer
patients must endure when people tell them that thinking
positively will give them a better outcome. This is not only
untrue, but places additional stress on the patient to live
up to unreal expectations. Here are some quotes.
- Patients are frightened. Remember your
goal is to listen not to talk. If the patient wants to tell
you about their prognosis then just LISTEN. If their
prognosis is bad do not show disrespect by telling them they
are wrong and they will survive.
- Last but not least, this is about them not you. Do not
trouble your friend/loved one by unburdening your fears and
feelings on them. This is your time to keep quiet and just
listen. Encourage them to talk while you listen. When you
tell them how you feel you leave them feeling you don’t care
about them. It is OK to tell them you are at a loss for
words, or to say nothing. Just listen!