Knowing what to say to someone who has cancer can be challenging. If we are not careful with our words, we can end up being hurtful instead of helpful. Here are a few things you need to know if you are supporting a friend with cancer.
When working through a cancer diagnosis and treatment, there are so many emotions. Knowing what to say to a family member or friend with cancer can be challenging. If we are not careful with our words, we can end up being unintentionally hurtful rather than comforting.
With every conversation, we have the opportunity to lift up or inadvertently push down the person we are trying to support.
Our words matter.
When a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer, I kept finding myself fumbling through interactions, never really knowing how to be supportive, encouraging, or even how to be real. If you're trying your best to support a friend with cancer too, here are some resources I've found to be extremely helpful.
What to say to someone with cancer
In this post, you will find...
- What to say to someone who has cancer (and what not to say)
- Comforting someone with cancer — The importance of empathy vs. sympathy
- What to say to a friend with cancer if you've gone MIA
What to say to someone who has cancer (and what not to say)
Knowing what to say to a friend with cancer can be challenging. I've found two resources that have been helpful.
The first thing I want to share with you is a visual resource showcasing the importance of what to say to someone with cancer (and what not to say). Hollye Jacobs created this helpful collection of "Cloud and Silver Linings." Hollye is a respected expert in the field of women’s health and wellness, a nurse, social worker, and the best selling author of The Silver Lining, A Supportive and Insightful Guide to Breast Cancer.
Hollye writes, "Speaking on behalf of patients everywhere (if I may), the majority of us know that you all try your best. We really do. Here are just a few better options to express what you are feeling. Thank you in advance for helping to take care of us!"
Here are two examples of what to say to someone with cancer (and what not to say) from her collection of clouds and silver linings during breast cancer.
The second resource was written by Whitney Hawkins Goodman, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (also radically empathetic psychotherapist). She shared a few additional examples of toxic positivity vs. statements of validation and hope:
✘ — See the good in everything.
✔︎ — It's probably really hard to see any good in this situation. We'll make sense of it.
✘ — You've got this!
✔︎ — This is hard. You'd done hard things before, and I believe in you.
✘ — You've got to stay positive!
✔︎ — I know there's a lot that could go wrong. What could go right?
✘ — Think happy thoughts!
✔︎ — It's probably pretty hard to be positive right now. I'm putting out good energy into the world for you.
Can you feel the difference in all the examples above?
Comforting someone with cancer — The importance of empathy vs. sympathy
Supporting a friend with cancer is more about being empathetic and showing up.
Pause and take a moment to watch this two-minute video on the differences between empathy and sympathy with Brené Brown.
If you aren't able to watch right now, the three biggest takeaways are:
- Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.
- Rarely does an empathic response begin with, "at least."
- Empathy is feeling with people.
Brené Brown explains...
If I share something with you that's difficult, I'd rather you say, "I don't even know what to say right now, I'm just glad you told me." The truth is rarely, can a response make something better-- what makes something better is connection.
If you don't always know what to say — that's ok. Simply show up with empathy.
Sending hugs your way,
What to Say to a Friend With Cancer If You've Gone MIA
First of all, it's okay. You're okay. Let's fix this.
If you panicked when you found out your friend had cancer and you haven't reached out lately, now is the time to resolve that. Emily McDowell explains,
When someone you love gets sick, it's really natural to get scared and uncomfortable and not know what to say. It's happened to all of us. You want to reach out, but you don't have the right words, and then time passes, and then it feels even worse and more awkward because it feels like it's been too long.
This card can help. A heartfelt apology and an honest explanation really can go a long way.
Get this card or reach out to your friend today.
Be sure to pin these resources for later, so you don't lose track of them.