2016-10-05 / Front Page

What To Say (Or Not) To Loved Ones With Cancer

by Merryl Reichbach and Anna Zabniak

One of the most challenging tasks we are faced with when someone we love has cancer is to manage our own strong reactions. This is not easy to do. When hearing upsetting and surprising news we can feel a sense of disbelief, shock, anger, and grief. These feelings are normal,but we will probably need to sort things out on our own or with someone we trust. If we don’t get a handle on our own strong feelings – unhelpful, inappropriate and insulting things may come flying come out of our mouths.
Don’t try to come up with reasons someone has cancer. “It’s because you eat red meat / don’t exercise / had vaccinations.” This feels like victim-blaming. We don’t know why some people get cancer and some don’t. It’s OK to have your ideas, but keep them to yourself.
Don’t say “You don’t look sick.”  Telling someone they don’t look sick when they are coping with an invisible but serious illness (and whose treatment can have invisible but difficult side-effects), can feel like you are denying their reality. Don’t focus on appearances unless your loved one initiates this topic.
Don’t bring up people you know who have died of cancer. It is natural that they will come to your mind.  However, your living loved one who has cancer is probably already thinking of that and doesn’t need you to bring it up.
Stay and listen! Just because you don’t know what to say, it’s no excuse to run and disappear. You can’t go wrong by being quiet and listening. If your loved one wants to talk about tough issues, listen. Follow their lead.
Tell them that you are there and make it clear what you can truly offer – time, escorting them to treatment, babysitting, meals, money for yoga classes, a caring ear. Figure out what you can do and offer it. And don’t wait for your loved one to ask. Many people, especially those who are used to taking care of others and putting other’s needs first, won’t ask. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need your help and won’t take you up on your offer if you speak up first and maybe offer more than once!
Do talk about your feelings with someone you love and trust – just not the person with cancer! Supporting someone can be draining and painful. Of course you will need support from time to time. You just need to get your needs met from someone who can be available. You can always call us at SHAREing & CAREing (S&C). We provide free counseling support to family and loved ones, too.


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