HOW TO TALK TO A CANCER PATIENT
Updated: Mar 11, 2022
Finding the right thing to say can be hard
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Cancer can be a pretty touchy subject. It might feel on your end that there is no "right thing" to say, and honestly, you're actually probably right. The situation they are in is hard. They feel lost, alone, confused, and scared. Because those types of feelings are swirling around in their head, it’s important to realize that there is no perfect thing to say or do. Cancer isn’t pretty, it isn’t easy, and it’s definitely not a situation where there’s one right answer. Sometimes saying nothing is the right approach while other times they need encouragement. It may change from day to day, or honestly, it might change from second to second. It’s normal for things to be rocky, emotions to flare, and viewpoints to change. Just know that no one is expecting you to have all the answers or to be the perfect caregiver. But below you will find some guidance and explanations on how to talk to cancer patients, from a survivor herself (Hi, I’m Jessica, author of A Cancer Made Mess found here).
1. Stay Calm
Considering the amount of stress that they are under, they may get upset and blow up on you when all you’re trying to do is help. It’s normal and it doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. Try your best to be patient with them.
2. Encourage Open Conversation
Initiate open conversations that encourage the cancer patient to talk about their feelings honestly. Don’t push if they don’t want to open up, but instead reassure them that you’re there to listen. Try phrases like “How are you really today?” “How did your first chemo go?” “How do you feel emotionally?” “Do you want to talk about anything?” Once they are talking (which might not happen, and that's okay), continue to encourage the conversation by using statements such as "I'm listening," "go on," "tell me more," and "I'm here for you."
3. Be Open Minded
If they do start sharing with you their inner thoughts and feelings, they might tell you some things that you find shocking or even upsetting. Make it a point to not judge their journey but rather listen. You might be led to a way you can offer some help (did they trip carrying in a load of laundry? Offer to do it for them – find more ways to help here).
4. Know When to Stay Silent
This one isn't necessarily words to actually say, but rather, when not to say something. Sometimes the best method of showing support is to simply be present and listen. If they are venting, let them vent. If they are crying, let them cry. You don't need to try to fix their emotions or the situation, because in reality, you can't. Sometimes they just need a safe place to release some of their pent up emotions without feeling as though they need to "change" their mindset/attitude. Often times, offering a hug or sitting next to them while you attentively listen can show more support than ill placed words.
5. Make Time to Keep it "Normal"
Yes, talk about cancer, but also make it a point to talk about the same things you did before. It’s important for a cancer patient to maintain a sense of normalcy during a very tumultuous time in their lives. You can help! Did you catch a funny video of your dog yesterday? Share it with them. Do you normally go out for Sunday brunch together to chat about your weeks? Try to keep the habit. They are the same person; they are just thrown into a pretty crappy situation. Having you treat them the same helps remind them that they do still have a life outside of cancer, which can be hard to remember or even to understand.
6. Understand Your Role
Realize that there are people who are better equipped at helping them than you are. Therapists, group sessions, survivors, all of those can relate better to what they are going through and give them helpful tools to cope. Your role isn’t to be the “fixer”. Your role is to be the positive support system.
7. Stay Positive
Now, with this one please don’t discount their hardships by being “too positive" while they are sharing their struggles (that’s probably the time to be quiet and listen). It can come off as insensitive if you don't acknowledge their struggle. But you should make it a point to be a positive force in their life during regular conversations. Encourage them to have fun (fun might look different once treatment side effects set in, but it’s still important). Smile and laugh with them. Share your faith with them. Pray for strength and healing with them. Share devotionals, bibles, and scriptures. Make it a point to be a light during a very dark time of their life.
Now that you know positive ways to talk to a cancer patient, let’s talk about the things NOT to say here.
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