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Published on November 01, 2012

Tips for Talking to Someone Who is Fighting Cancer

Everybody knows someone who has cancer. If it’s a family member or a close friend, you’ve probably talked to them about it—which can be extremely difficult. There is no easy answer when trying to figure out what to say to someone who literally is staring down death.

The reality is that, in 2012, people are living and working with cancer more than ever before. They aren’t confined to a cancer ward; they’re sitting at the next desk. Way too many people sit there awkwardly with no idea what to say. It isn’t that they don’t want to help—it’s just that they don’t know how and they don’t want to say or do the wrong thing. 

Rather than having you wonder about the proper “cancer etiquette,” here are some guidelines for talking to someone who has cancer:

• Acknowledge it. Just come right out and address the situation. Ignoring it doesn’t help anyone; it just makes everything awkward. Sincerely expressing your thoughts is the best way to demonstrate that you care. “I think just asking ‘How are you doing today?’ implies that you are concerned and willing to talk about the illness if the person wishes to do so,” says Mary Rooney, R.N., B.S.N., OCN, CBCN, patient care navigator at the Crozer-Regional Cancer Center at Crozer-Chester Medical Center. “After that, you can move into a typical conversation like you would have prior to their diagnosis.”

• Think before you speak. This is not a good time for an unthinking faux pas. Avoid words like “terminal.”

• Don’t be an expert. Unless of course you are an expert. But assuming you’re not a doctor, don’t try to solve the patient’s problem. You’re just trying to be helpful but the odds are that you don’t know what you’re talking about. And that’s fine. Your role is not to cure; it’s to care.

• Ask (meaningful) questions. How you ask a question matters. One example is “How are you doing today?” Asking the question with an emphasis on the word today demonstrates an understanding on your part and is more likely to elicit a meaningful response. This gives your friend an opportunity to unburden him/herself, and that means you’re helping.

• Shut up and listen. This should be a normal conversation, albeit on a difficult subject. You don’t have to smother your friend/family member with an avalanche of words. Let them talk. Don’t rush to have all the answers, because you don’t, and they don’t expect you to.

• Act normal. You don’t need to juggle for your friend to entertain him or her. Drastically altering your behavior is a signal that you’re worried; acting normally can be a soothing indication that everything is going to be okay. “I think it’s important to remember that your friend/family member is still the same person,” says Patricia Hollenback, R.N., B.S.N, OCN, patient care navigator at the Crozer-Regional Cancer Center at Crozer-Chester Medical Center. “Yes, they have been diagnosed with cancer, but that doesn't mean that they are cancer. Most of the people I know do not want to be treated any differently because of their diagnosis.”

• Talk about something else. “Sometimes the patient may not want to discuss the diagnosis,” says Alicia McCann, R.N., B.S.N., patient care navigator at the Delaware County Regional Cancer Center at Delaware County Memorial Hospital. “Speaking with a friend may be the only time they can get away from the constant fear of their cancer.”

The number-one rule when talking with a cancer patient is to remember that you’re not expected to be a miracle worker. You’re expected to be a friend. “It’s also important to remember that you can’t guarantee that everything will turn out fine,” says Marge Franke, R.N., M.B.A., CLNC, patient care navigator at the Delaware County Regional Cancer Center at Delaware County Memorial Hospital. “Recognize and relay that you know they are having a difficult time. Allow the friend/family member time to talk about their feelings and fears, as well.”

Learn more about Crozer-Keystone Health System’s cancer services by visiting the website. You can also call 1-866-695-HOPE (1-866-695-4673) to request an appointment with a physician who cares for cancer patients.

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