When someone is diagnosed with cancer, conversation can be difficult. Many people struggle to find the right words.
“Know that it’s hard. It’s not easy to know what to say. Part of it is, we never know where that person is in that moment. Something said today may be fine, but say the same thing tomorrow and it may make them angry or sad,” said licensed clinical social worker Katherine Puckett, chief, Division of Mind-Body Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
“No two people are the same,” said licensed clinical social worker Sara Goldberger, senior program director, Cancer Support Community. “Don’t perceive to know what a person needs or wants,” said Goldberger, acknowledging the difficulty of finding the right words.
“Talk less; listen more,” both experts said.
It’s hard to be met with silence, but realize there’s no right or wrong way to have the conversation, Puckett said. If you don’t know what to say, say that: “Wow, I don’t know what to say,” “Gosh, I’m sorry to hear that,” “How are you feeling with that?”
‘Reach for feedback’
Ask them if they want to talk about it.
“If they’ve brought up the subject, they’re probably open to discussing it, but follow their lead,” Puckett said. “Show interest and concern. Offer encouragement and listen, listen, listen.”
To gauge whether your words are appreciated, “reach for feedback,” Goldberger said. “Ask ‘How was it to hear that?’ or ‘Am I on the right track?’ Give them the opportunity to say how they feel. It’s a conversation, not a statement.
“If you’re not sure, try and put yourself in their shoes by remembering a time when something scary happened to you. What would you have liked to hear?” Goldberger said.
Some things to avoid
Offering advice, sharing stories of others who have battled cancer (especially those who have died) and showing pity should be avoided.
“People don’t want pity. They’re so sick of hearing, ‘Oh you poor thing.’ One client told me, ‘I’m the same person I always was. I just have cancer,’” Puckett said.
“Don’t say, ‘I know how you feel’ or tell them what they should do or what kind of diet they should try. Don’t say, ‘Don’t worry’ or ‘It’s going to be fine.’ You don’t know that,” Goldberger said.
Don’t tell them to stay positive.
“While research shows that being optimistic can have positive health benefits, don’t force them to be positive if they’re not in the right place at that time,” Puckett said. “Let them be real. Give them a chance to express themselves.”
Don’t tell them not to cry.
“Tears can be a healthy release,” Puckett said. Often people say “don’t cry” because it makes them feel uncomfortable, she said.
Offering help
Empty promises of help are easy to make, but “don’t promise things you can’t follow through on,” Puckett said.
“Say, ‘I want to be able to help you. It makes me feel good to help. Can you think of something specific I can do?’” Goldberger said.
Offering a ride to a doctor’s appointment may not be appreciated if what they really need is someone to mow the lawn. Lasagnas and casseroles don’t help if cooking is someone’s way of coping and staying sane. Offer what you can do, Goldberger said.