Cancer Patients Comment on What They Do Not Want to Hear After Diagnosis

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Every single patient, at every stage of the disease (regardless of the type of treatment) experiences issues that cause them to feel distress – ranging from sadness, vulnerability, and anxiety about the future. Anger is also a very common emotion – and a perfectly healthy response as long as no one is harmed. The Cancer Support Community describes the stages of emotional distress this way:

• Pre-Treatment- you may feel that “no one understands” what you are going through. It is important at this time to gather as much information as possible and to find someone to talk to who has been through treatment.

• Mid-Treatment- you may feel overwhelmed, even unable to manage daily responsibilities. This is a normal reaction and often reflects the strain on your physical and emotional energy as you manage treatment and cope with your situation. Many people find a support group to be very helpful at this time as you can learn from others about what helps them at this time.

• Post-Treatment- you may feel “abandoned” by your healthcare team or other supportive people that were so involved during treatment, or you may feel anxious about the cancer returning. Throughout this time, you and your caregivers may find that a support group can be beneficial in making the transition from being ill to living well after cancer

Unfortunately, although their intentions are good, some people just simply say the wrong thing to a newly diagnosed person. Cancer patients all agree that they are very grateful for the compassion and kindness, but would rather not hear statements along the following lines:

1. "This may be hard to hear, but..." Going through cancer, life is beyond hard enough. Don't make it any harder. Offer support by simply listening. Say something like “I’m sorry you are going through this.” And on this note, don’t mention that someone you know died of cancer. It is not helpful at this stage.

2. “You’ll Be Fine.” You can’t possibly know the future, so please don’t say this to a cancer patient. And certainly don’t say it to blow a person off who needs to talk. Be aware that the patient has fears and really needs to express them. Repressed emotions can add unneeded stress to the situation.

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3. "I can relate." Unless you have gone through chemo, radiation, and/or cancer surgery, it is almost impossible to be able to physically relate. Yes, you may have stood by someone’s side while they had cancer treatments, but it just isn’t the same as when it happens to you. And even if you have gone through it yourself, your experience could be quite different. Sharing experiences or tips is good, but do not attempt to “put yourself in their place.”

4. "This is part of God's bigger plan." Or “God doesn’t give you a cross you can’t bear.” Even the most spiritual of us will question why this is happening. As said before, anger is very common, with some people becoming temporarily angry with God. While someone may say this in order to be encouraging, it just can come across as condescending.

5. “Here is What You Should Do.” Again, personal experience sometimes gives us a bit of knowledge that we can share with others. Unfortunately, there are people who will spend hours searching for answers on the internet and then present their loved one with “what they should do.” Let the person’s healthcare team assist with the options. Just be there to support them through whatever they decide.

It can be hard to come up with something to say after hearing the news that a friend or loved one has cancer. But you know, that’s okay too. Just say that you don’t know what to say. Ask if there is anything they need help with right now. Don’t just say “I’ll be there if you need help” because some people are still too timid to ask for help. Every now and again, check up on your friend to see if there is anything you can do.

Above all, tell them you love them and that you care for them.

Resources:

Dan Duffy, “What Not to Say to A Cancer Patient”, Huffington Post
Stephanie (of DerailingMyDiagnosis.com), Cancer Etiquette
Cancer.Net, “Supporting a Friend Who Has Cancer”

Ahmedin Jemal et al. Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975–2009. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. January 7, 2013.
American Cancer Society, “Cancer Prevalence: How Many People Have Cancer?”, October 2012

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