What to say, how to help someone with cancer

I am the queen when it comes to putting my foot in my mouth. So, in case you’re not sure what to say, I thought it would be good to include this stuff here. The content below came from http://www.ahln.org/support.htm

But first, here are the rules we made for ourselves:

  1. We’re in this together – all of us.
  2. Our mantra is “We can work with that.” No matter the news, no matter the challenge, we take the attitude that we can work with it.
  3. We laugh, watch for, and accept joy in whatever way it comes. From the dogs being funny. From jokes we tell. From funny TV shows. If we see joy, we grab it.
  4. We hug a lot. A whole lot and for a long time, and tell each other we love each other.  Hugs feel great!


Do’s & Don’ts of what to say or do:

First the don’ts:

  1. The worst thing you can say or do is to say or do nothing at all. Almost every survivor can tell of at least one person who, upon hearing the news, disappeared and was never heard from again. Maybe the fact that your friend or loved one has cancer is the worst news you’ve ever heard and you can’t stand the thought of him being this sick. You don’t know what to say or do, and it’s too painful to see him without hair, and the house smells like a hospital, and, well, it’s all so just so scary. I don’t mean to be harsh here, but this really isn’t about you. Stick around, please. Your loving presence alone can be the healing salve for a wounded, frightened spirit.
  2. I know you mean well when you say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” but I wish you would listen to the implications in that comment and refrain from using it. It implies that God gave us cancer which inference often leads newly diagnosed patients to wonder if God is punishing them for something they did or failed to do, and that’s the last thing we need to be worrying about right now. To clean up a popular phrase, stuff happens. People get cancer (1 in 3, in fact). People get lots of other awful diseases, too. Babies are born with defects. Long-distance runners have heart attacks. Brave men and women go to war and get killed. Supermen fall from horses, and maniacs fly airplanes into buildings. And, yes, many people do get more than they can handle as evidenced by suicide rates. Not to step on anyone’s religion here, but I refuse to believe God is the one causing all this mayhem, destruction and chaos.Instead of telling us that God gave us cancer, tell us that God will be with us every step of the way (even if we’re not religious, this is better than the former comment).
  3. Don’t predict the future. Acknowledge the seriousness of the diagnosis without being morbid (Oh, my God! My aunt had the very same thing and she died 8 months later!”), and without being unrealistic (“You’ll probably outlive me. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow!”). We don’t know what’s going to happen to us, and neither do you. Tell us happy stories of other long-term cancer survivors (but refrain from saying someone had “the very same thing”; no two cancer diagnoses are ever the same).Never, ever tell us stories with unhappy endings.

Now for the do’s:

  1. Things to say: “I’m here for you.” “You can cry with me.” “I love you.” “I won’t leave you.” “Whatever you’re feeling is okay.”Just be there. Follow our lead. We’ll let you know if we want to “talk about it,” and if we do, please let us. Don’t change the subject. When you don’t allow us to talk about our disease, it makes us feel alone and isolated.
  2. Things to do: Take my kids out for pizza and a movie or, better yet, for the weekend. Offer to pick up prescriptions, take the dog to the groomer and run other errands. Clip cartoons and funny pictures and send them in a card. Bring thoughtful gifts (a book or magazine, a tabletop fountain, a meditation tape or CD); avoid things with strong smells (bath sets, flowers, food, etc.) until you know how I’m reacting to my treatments.
  3. Feel free to drop something by if you like
  4. The distraction of your visit is often welcome. We love company. You might want to call first to be sure it’s a good time.

Source: The Cancer Crusade e-newsletter

And finally, here are some simple guidelines to use when talking with your friend.

Avoid saying:

  • I know just how you feel.
  • You need to talk.
  • I know just what you should do.
  • I feel helpless.
  • I don’t know how you manage.
  • You’re lucky, yours is the good cancer – this is often said of Hodgkin’s disease because it is curable but there is nothing at all lucky about having any cancer.

Do say:

  • I’m sorry this has happened to you.
  • If you ever feel like talking, I am here to listen.
  • What are you thinking of doing, and how can I help?
  • Please let me know what I can do to help.
  • If Kevin is an inspiration, tell him how he inspires you.
  • If you want to help, be specific. Like, “can I treat you to lunch Wednesday” or can I do anything around the house – or whatever it is you might be more inclined to do.

Gift ideas

If you are wanting to give your friend a gift, the following list might give you some ideas:

  • gift certificates for massage, spa services, bookstore, restaurants, movies, museum/art gallery passes
  • a soothing CD
  • a funny movie or book
  • relaxation and meditation books, or a voucher for educational classes
  • light reading such as magazines and poetry books
  • homemade soup
  • a beautiful scarf or hat (to disguise thinning hair)
  • new pajamas or sweat pants (lots of imaging tests require you don’t wear jeans, so these are helpful)
  • a journal to write about their experience

Anything that provides laughter or comfort is healing and is always welcomed. Sing or play a song for your friend, take them for a walk, or give them a massage or foot-rub. Don’t underestimate the value of physical touch; sometimes the best gift of all is a hug.

Most importantly, work to strike a balance in your support for friends or family members dealing with cancer. Be concerned, but not intrusive. Allow them their privacy, but don’t abandon them. Don’t be afraid to ask them for guidance in how you can best help them through their challenges when facing cancer.

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