How To Talk To People With Cancer

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
How To Talk To People With Cancer

Your best friend's doctor has just delivered the news that's guaranteed to send most people reeling - the diagnosis is cancer.

What do you say?

Ruth Dein, R.N., a licensed/certified counselor and nurse navigator in the Oncology Services program at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, has been talking with cancer patients for 25 years. She's met them when they are newly diagnosed. She's held their hands while they undergo treatment. And she's helped celebrate with survivors.


Dein offers the following tips for what to say - and not say - to someone who has cancer. She also stresses that while words are important, so are acts of kindness. Do things like send cards of encouragement, chip in and do chores around the house and provide transportation to and from doctor appointments. Your friend's going to need the help.

Say this:

* That sounds really hard. Can I give you a hug?
* It sounds like you're really struggling today.
* It sounds like you're very upset.
* It's OK to cry. Let me get you a tissue.
* I'm here for you: I've got time.
* This is what I'm hearing you say (paraphrase what person has said). Have I understood you correctly?
* How are you doing? I really want to know.
* What can I do for you? (Then do it.)

Not this:

* It does no good to dwell on your illness. Have a positive attitude!
* But you look so well.
* You know, everything happens for a reason.
* If I were you, I'd ... get a second opinion/only follow part of the recommended treatment/use alternative medicine instead.
* My friend was treated with ... surgery/radiation/chemotherapy. Why aren't your doctors recommending them?
* Someday we'll look back on this and laugh.
* My (fill in the blank) had the same thing, and she's fine/sick as a dog/still alive but so sick she wishes she were dead. (You get the picture.)
* How much time do they give you? Are you in remission? Are you terminal?