As someone who has supported my mom through her nearly 25 year battle with cancer, as well as someone who has battled cancer myself, I’ve heard a range of responses to a diagnosis over my life. While some responses like “Someone I know had your type of cancer -- and they were just fine!” come across as callous or dismissive, other responses like “My aunt Betty died from your type of cancer -- are you going to make it?” are clearly well-intentioned but lacking in emotional intelligence.
Instead of falling into the ruts that we’ve seen other supporters fall into, here are five helpful things you can say to someone once you’ve heard the news of their diagnosis:
1. I’m not sure what to say. It’s OK not to know what to say. The most important thing you can do now is to reassure your friend or loved one that you’re there for them. As tempting as it can be, though, don’t promise more than you can realistically deliver on. It’s important to know yourself and your boundaries and only communicate those when you’re ready.
2. I’d like to do _____ for you. One of the things that tends to slide right off the tip of my tongue whenever I hear of someone in need is the old, “Let me know what I can do to help.” I’m not alone, which I know because I’ve been on the receiving end of this comment quite a few times as well. What I can tell you from experience is that the number of times I’ve been able to take someone up on this or have taken someone up on this is right around zero. Rather than putting the burden on the patient or their caregiver to give you a task, offer to do something specific for them.
Here’s a few ideas that you might consider:
- Take their dog for walks
- Cook them meals or have meals delivered to them
- Grocery shop or have groceries delivered to them
- Schedule their appointments
- Take them to appointments
- Do their laundry
- Clean their house
- Mow their lawn
- Babysit their children
- Organize a fundraiser
If you’re not sure what to suggest, you can also refer them to OneVillage and help them get started creating their WishList. This way you know what they need, when they need it.
3. How are you doing? Cancer isn’t just physical. In fact, coping with a diagnosis has a number of mental elements as well so be sure to check in on your loved one and assure them that although they may be experiencing frightening emotions they are going through a frightening time so it’s normal to feel off-center.
4. What does your spouse / kid / caregiver need? Cancer is hard on the whole family, so one of the most impactful things you can do is to be there for those people who are supporting the patient on the most regular basis and could probably use a break, too. Offer to take the kids out for an ice cream or send them a small gift that will keep them busy for a while so their parents can get some rest. Make or have delivered a meal for the family or organize a meal train to help simplify weeknights. Sometimes the littlest acts of kindness make the biggest difference.
5. When can we [insert fun activity here]? Don’t forget that people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer had a life beforehand too. Do what you can to make them feel a sense of normalcy, and encourage them to try to enjoy some of the things they have always enjoyed doing. Plan a fun event or outing that will help them get their mind off things. Just make sure you're sensitive to their condition, and that whatever activity you choose is appropriate for both their physical and mental condition following surgical procedures or treatments.