"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
September 24, 2015
What to Say When Someone Gets Cancer
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

A person I grew up with was recently diagnosed with cancer. She is young and has a young family, and I feel awful for her. I live across the country and haven’t seen her in years. Should I say or do something for her? What would be helpful and not annoying?

Answer:

When a person you know gets bad news, it is kind and considerate to contact that person with an expression of sympathy or support. A short, sincere message that does not require any response beyond, “Thank you,” is best. All you need to say is: I heard, I’m sorry, I’m thinking of you. For example, “Dear Jan—I was so sorry to hear about your diagnosis. What a difficult situation. I know I live far away, but I want you to know I am thinking about you and your family. With love, Clara Park.”

If you live close enough or are in a position to offer assistance to the person, you might also add something like, “Please add me to your list of people who can help. I’d be happy to help drive Evan to and from preschool.” You might also send her a pleasant card or a small treat.

This communication may seem short, but it will express your care and concern without burdening the person who is sick. Because, as you have pointed out, even kindly-meant expressions of support can become more of a trial than a comfort.

Here are seven things not to say to a person who is facing a health crisis.

One, that you are devastated by the news. You may, in fact, feel devastated. Perhaps this is the first person your age who has faced a life-threatening illness; it is painful to contemplate your mortality for the first time, and to think about the effect her illness could have on her children. But there is a difference between saying you feel bad about her situation and saying that you are personally crushed, that you can’t think about anything else and that you’ve been crying for days. Your goal is to express your sympathy for the sick person and her family, not to tell her all the ways her illness is making you feel bad, too. Because no matter how upset you feel, I promise you that the sick person feels worse. And if you go on and on about how horrible the situation is, you will put the actual sick person in the strange position of having to comfort you, instead of the other way around.

Two, religious comfort. You do not know how the person is coping with her diagnosis. She may be steeping herself in faith, she may be angry or she may be both, depending on the moment. It is therefore better to express your support, and to let her bring up any religious perspective that is comforting to her. I particularly suggest you avoid phrases like, “Everything happens for a reason,” “God’s will,” and “It will all work out for the best. ”

Three, prognostications. “I just know you’re going to be okay,” is not helpful. You don’t know the person will be okay. You hope the person will be okay. You are optimistic the treatments will work. You want the person to recover. But you don’t know. You are neither a doctor nor an oracle. You have no right to prophesy to her about her health. If she feels that she will be okay, let her tell you.

Four, the words “lucky” and “at least.” It is only “lucky” to have stage 1 cancer if you compare it to having stage 4 cancer. But having cancer at all is not “lucky,” no matter how treatable it is. Similarly, “at least they caught it in time,” is comforting only if you are able to grasp that many people are not diagnosed early. This big-picture perspective is not always possible for a person who has just been diagnosed.

Five, stories. Often in conversation, it is polite to share a story similar to one that has been shared with you. Not in this case. In this case, you should focus entirely on the person who is ill, and not on matching her story with a similar story of your own. This person does not need to hear about your Aunt Polly’s horrible death from cancer. Or about your Uncle Ned’s miraculous recovery. There is nothing she can do about her illness except undergo the recommended treatment. She does not need you to give her examples of the various outcomes.

Similarly, do not attempt to relate to her by describing whatever trial or worry you are experiencing right now. Responding to her news by telling her that you are really struggling, too—to find a house in a better school district or to decide whether your twelve-year-old is mature enough for scout camp—is not appropriate.

Six, advice about nutrition, exercise, medicine, alternative medicine or anything else. Especially because this person is not your close friend, she does not want to hear your opinions or testimonials on these topics. She does not want to discuss the miracle of essential oils or to hear about the benefits of dark leafy greens. She especially does not want to listen to a sales pitch.

Now, if you have actually been through the treatment she will undergo, you might offer to talk to her about your experience, if she feels it would be helpful. Or, if you are a professional who works with patients in her condition, you might offer to share your professional knowledge. If she accepts, be glad to help. If she does not, don’t press.

Seven, silver linings. It is not uncommon for people who face life-threatening illness to come to their own conclusions about what, despite their illness, they have gained or learned. But most people do not feel so philosophical when they are diagnosed. You should not attempt to find a silver lining for this person. Similarly, leave the wry humor and macabre jokes to the sick person. “Primary gave me cancer,” is funny coming from the CTR 7 teacher. It is not funny coming from you.

Finally, this person may not be feeling terrible about her illness at the exact moment she reads your message or talks with you. You don’t want your communication to bring her down if she is having an okay day. It is therefore better to emphasize your love and support, and not the sadness of her situation.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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