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What to Say to a Loved One Diagnosed with Cancer

The best portion of a good man’s life – his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.

– William Wordsworth

You’ve learned that a friend or family member has been diagnosed with cancer. You desperately want to help, to do something, anything to make this terrible experience somehow easier for him to bear. But you feel helpless. You don’t know what to do. You don’t even know what to say.

Here are a few suggestions:


1. “I can help.” It’s a statement, not a question. Cancer survivors are reluctant to answer the too-frequently asked question “What can I do to help?” Most of the time it’s because they don’t want to impose their illness on you and they don’t want to feel helpless. So they will answer with, “Oh, nothing really.” Sometimes it’s because they’re in shock. They’re reeling from the diagnosis, a recurrence, or bad lab results. They can’t even think clearly enough to answer your question, so it’s easier to say, “Nothing. Honest, I’m fine.” That’s why it’s so important for you to take the lead and state, “I can help.”

There are lots of books and magazine articles that list specific things you can do to help. Find those publications and follow through (there’s a helpful link at the bottom of this page).

You can also ask the survivor’s family members for suggestions of ways you can help.

2. “I’m here for you.” Sometimes there is nothing to say. Follow the survivor’s lead here. She may not want to talk at all. She may just want you to hold her hand or put your arms around her and let her cry. When you see this is what she needs, don’t say anything. Work on becoming comfortable with the silences. One way to do this is to focus on becoming very still and quiet within yourself and know that, when the pain and grief are too big for words, God is there – in the silence, when there is nothing to say. Don’t be afraid of that silence because you’re not alone there.

3. “You can cry with me.” Again, follow the survivor’s lead here. You may be able to tell that he is struggling to smile during your visit, putting on a happy face just for you. A really good friend will shut the door and say, “It’s okay to cry, you know. You can cry with me.” And if he chooses to cry, it’s okay if you cry, too. Sharing grief and pain with another person in this way is a powerful tool for emotional and spiritual healing. On the other hand, it’s best to postpone a visit if you are feeling weepy and the survivor is having a good day.

Sometimes someone says something really small, and it just fits right into this empty place in your heart.

– From the television show “My So Called Life”

4. “I love you.” Far too many people are still far too uncomfortable with the most beautiful, healing words we have. If “I love you” was spoken more freely every day, some powerful healing would take place in this world. If you don’t believe how important these words are to speak and to hear, think of people who are already gone from your life. Don’t you wish you had told them you loved them more often? Say “I love you” today to more people than you said it to yesterday.

5. “I won’t leave you.” The going could get very rough or it might be smooth sailing. Treatments may change how your friend or loved one looks and behaves. There will be good lab results, and there may be bad ones. To paraphrase Bette Davis’s famous line in All About Eve, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.” Ask yourself if you can take it. If you can, tell the survivor that no matter what happens, you won’t leave him. If you can’t, best to skedaddle now. When I was diagnosed, I had what I thought was a very close friend of seven or eight years. I never heard from her again after I told her the news. I heard later from other friends that she “just couldn’t take it.” Well, geez, I’m awfully sorry that my multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments were so hard on her, but in hindsight it’s best she disappeared when she did and not when I was at my sickest months later

6. “Whatever you’re feeling is okay.” Survivors are often reluctant and even embarrassed to talk about some of the things they’re thinking, worrying about, even dreaming about. They’re afraid they might sound “crazy” if they tell anyone. Let your friend or family member know that she can talk to you about her feelings. And when she does, don’t change the subject. If you change the subject, it tells her you’re uncomfortable and makes her feel even more alone and isolated.

The most important things to remember are to take the lead when figuring out what you can do to help, but follow the survivor’s lead when it comes to conversation.

Roger and Kathy Cawthon
The Cancer Crusade