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What to Say to a Loved One Who Has Cancer

Perhaps you’ll face a situation in which your spouse, a close friend or a relative receives the diagnosis no one wants to hear: cancer. It’s a delicate situation, so understandably, you may be concerned about saying the wrong thing to him or her. How can you best offer comfort and support in this situation? Try these tips:

  • Try to “listen with your heart.” For example, ask “What are you feeling?” Your loved one may be experiencing a host of emotions—fear, anger, sadness, guilt, helplessness, anxiety. He or she may be concerned about the impact the disease will have on finances, job, sexuality or relationships. Pay attention to the answer to your question so you can understand his or her feelings.

  • Encourage your loved one not to blame himself or herself for getting ill. A longtime smoking habit may have led to lung cancer, but it’s important to focus on getting better instead.

  • Ask whether he or she wants to discuss his or her healthcare visits. Some people may want to talk about what their healthcare provider said in detail, while others may not want to talk about it at all. If your loved one asks for your opinion about his or her illness and treatment options, be open and honest. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so.

  • Offer practical help. Instead of saying, “Call me if you need anything,” say, “What can I do to help?” For example, you might offer to research your loved one’s disease, provide transportation to a doctor’s office or sit in on a checkup, go grocery shopping or cook a meal.

  • Try to help your loved one focus on positive information. More than 13 million people who’ve had cancer are alive today, and new treatments are constantly being developed.

  • Know that sometimes people may take out their anxieties and frustrations on those closest to them. Or they may act out feelings of helplessness or weakness. These are normal responses to illness. Remain calm and be extra understanding if this happens.

As you reach out to your loved one, remember to tune in to your own heart. It will help guide you to just the right words.

Listen With Your Heart

You may feel uncomfortable talking to someone who has a life-limiting illness, worried that you’ll say the wrong thing. Don’t be. Just keep the following things in mind:

  • Be a good listener. Truly listen to what your loved one or friend is saying and how he or she is saying it.
  • Don’t worry about silence. It can be comforting. Talking just to talk or because you’re nervous is far more awkward.
  • Maintain eye contact and don’t be afraid to smile or be affectionate.
  • Never say “I know how you feel.”
  • Don’t give advice. Instead, listen and ask questions.
  • Lighten things up where appropriate. Talking about an interesting news story or describing something funny your son did can be a welcome diversion.
  • Be honest if it’s just too emotional for you to see your friend or loved one. Explain that when you can better maintain your composure, you’ll come and visit.
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