New data reveals that only one in five Australians feel very confident that they’d know how to support a cancer patient. Knowing what to say to a friend or family member who has been diagnosed with cancer can be hard. Annette Beattie, Supportive Care Manager at Cancer Council NSW, shares 10 things you could say to someone with cancer.
Annette says when someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, you might want to talk to them about it but not know how.
“You may be worried about saying the wrong thing or intruding. Sometimes the person with cancer will raise the topic and you may find it difficult to come up with the right words to say.
“It’s normal to feel lost for words, no matter how close you are to the person who has cancer. There isn’t one perfect script – what you say will probably depend on your relationship, your past experiences, and your personality,” said Ms Beattie.
Here are some ideas about what you might say and do.
1. Let them know you’re willing to listen
Sometimes a caring listener is what the person needs most. If they want to talk about what they are going through, make eye contact, give them time to speak and try not to interrupt.
2. Ask “Do you want to share what’s going on for you today?”
From time to time throughout their treatment and recovery, ask the person how they are feeling. If you wait for the perfect time to ask, it may never come. Make the effort to really listen and respond to their answer.
3. Acknowledge life can be hard
A person with cancer doesn’t want to feel blamed or punished. Don’t focus on what may have led to the cancer, but on how hard it is that people get cancer. It may help to recognise that sometimes bad things can happen to good people.
4. Invite them to catch up
Continue inviting them to catch ups. Give them the option of declining or cancelling, even at the last minute. This helps them feel included and gives them a choice.
5. Show them you care
You might send a card, text or Facebook message, drop off a meal, help with jobs around the garden, cleaning or laundry. Before visiting, check they feel well enough and can have visitors. Don’t visit if you’re unwell or have any cold or flu symptoms.
6. Treat them the same
People are sensitive and may be aware of any abrupt changes in behaviour within a relationship. Try to continue acting in the same way or talk together about any changes that are needed.
7. Follow their lead
Some people with cancer don’t like to be called a ‘cancer sufferer, battler, victim or survivor’. Others don’t like to talk about ‘fighting cancer’, as this may make them feel like they’re losing or feel labeled. Pay attention to how they refer to themselves and follow suit.
8. Talk about other things too
Although it’s important to ask how they’re feeling, it’s okay to chat about other things happening in both of your lives.
9. Know what not to say
Avoid saying things that are overly optimistic such as “everything is going to be all right” or “it will all work out in the end” or overly pessimistic like, “how long do you have to live?” You should also avoid addressing how they may or may not feel – for example, “I know exactly how you feel”, “I can imagine how you feel”, or “just relax, don’t get worked up.”
10. Avoid burdening with your own feelings
If you’re upset and don’t know exactly how to express your feelings, it’s okay to just say so but don’t put the burden on the person with cancer to make you feel better. Sometimes it’s enough just to be there with them.
It can be difficult to watch someone you care about go through a serious illness. You can call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to talk about how you’re feeling or to ask any questions. You can also visit our website, cancercouncil.com.au/get-support