When someone you know has cancer, it can be difficult — and sometimes awkward — to find the right words to say. However, a Rush expert recommends embracing the awkwardness and approaching the topic head on.
“The biggest challenge with talking to people who have cancer is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Teresa Deshields, PhD, psychologist and director of supportive oncology for the Rush University Cancer Center. “You have to meet the person where they are by being respectful of their situation and their comfort level discussing their diagnosis.”
Deshields provides the following five tips to help support your friends and family when they are going through cancer treatment.
1. Ask permission
Before visiting or asking questions, ask if it is welcome and do not take it personally if they say no.
Deshields says phrases to use when asking permission can include, “Is it OK if I ask about this?” or “Can we talk about this?” If they are responding to the questions in detail, do not be afraid to ask additional questions; otherwise, respect their privacy.
2. It’s OK to speak up
Although it can be uncomfortable talking about a person’s cancer diagnosis, Deshields recommends not avoiding the topic. Not acknowledging their cancer diagnosis can make them feel isolated.
Even if all you have to say is, ‘I heard you were just diagnosed with cancer, and I don’t know what to say but I’m here for you,’ you’re expressing your support.
3. Follow their lead
Every person who has cancer has a unique experience and identifies with their diagnosis differently. Deshields suggests trusting the person and following their lead in the conversation.
“Words can be very personal,” says Deshields. “Pay attention to terms they prefer and act tentatively until you know what language suits them.”
For example, common phrases used among people who have cancer are about the ‘fight’ or ‘battle’ of cancer; but for some, this may not be their experience. Also, be aware that a person’s prognosis, feelings and preferred language about their diagnosis can change.
“You don’t have to agree with the person’s feelings or the language they use about cancer,” says Deshields. “But it’s important to validate how they are viewing their diagnosis right now because ultimately it’s their experience.”
4. Don’t make it about you
Many people tend to offer support by relating to another person’s situation; however, it is important not to make the conversations all about you.
“It’s common when talking to a person who has cancer that the story turns into something that is relevant to you personally, such as your own experience or a relative or friend’s experience with cancer,” says Deshields. “But then the person who has cancer may end up comforting you instead of the reverse.”
5. Other ways to convey your support
It is important to remember that your friends and family with cancer are more than their disease and still have an array of interests. Those who have cancer may also want to talk about other aspects of their lives, such as work, their kids, pets or a recent episode of their favorite television show.
And conveying your support doesn’t have to be through conversation. There are many ways to offer your support.
“What everyone says is, ‘Just let me know if there is anything I can do,’ which puts all the initiative, and/or burden, on the person with cancer,” says Deshields.
Instead, she recommends offering the person something in particular, such as dropping off a meal or giving them a ride to treatment.
“Ultimately, the best thing you can do is offer your support in the ways that they want and need it,” says Deshields.