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When Someone You Know Has Cancer

Article date: July 1, 2008

When times get tough for friends, family, and co-workers, you naturally want to help in any way you can.

Usually all you need to do is provide a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on. Or perhaps a night on the town or a good joke is what it takes. In tougher situations, you might need to decide whether to make a loan or to let someone move into your guest room a while.

That about covers most cases. But forget about "most cases" when it comes to learning that someone you know has cancer.

When this happens, it can seem impossible to know what to say or do, and at the same time it can seem impossible not to say or do something.

The fear, of course, is that you will end up saying or doing the wrong thing at the worst possible time. Afraid of hurting or offending someone at such a sensitive moment, it's easy to feel paralyzed. You simply don't know how to respond.

Keep relationships normal, balanced

"One of the most important things you can do is to treat the person with cancer just as you would normally," says Terri Ades, RN, MS, director of cancer information for the American Cancer Society.

Offer encouragement but not blind optimism, she advises. Pie-in-the-sky statements like "Oh, don't worry, you'll be just fine" could make people feel you aren't taking their illness seriously, that you're dismissing their fears, concerns, anger, or sadness.

And don't forget the old adage: "Silence is golden."

"It's OK to listen without always feeling that you have to respond," Ades says. "Often, people just need time to be heard."

Your ultimate goal should be to keep your relationship as balanced as possible.

"Make sure all your conversations don't become focused on the person's cancer," says Ades. "That's not good for either one of you."

Yes, your friend, co-worker, or relative has cancer, but he or she still cares about you and your life. Don't do them a disservice by locking them out.

Some do's

When you first learn that a person has cancer, a simple expression of concern can often be the most meaningful thing you can say, according to "When Someone You Know Has Cancer" and “When Someone You Work With Has Cancer,”  two ACS documents that Ades has worked extensively on.

Both documents make the point that simple yet heartfelt statements like the following can allow you to: 

  • Acknowledge the situation. Example: "I know this must be hard for you."
  • Express concern. Example: "I'm sorry to hear that you're going through this."
  • Offer to listen. Example: "If you would like to talk about it, I am here."
  • Offer assistance. Example: "Please let me know if I can help."
  • Be open with your feelings. Example: "I'm not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care."
  • Ask how the person feels. (Rather than assuming you know how the person feels on any given day.) Example: "How are you doing?"

Some don't's

It is normal to feel sorry for someone with cancer, or to feel guilty for being healthy. You may feel awkward, especially if you have not had a previous experience with cancer.

Try to be aware of what you’re feeling before you interact with someone who has cancer so that you don’t say anything you don’t mean or that could jeopardize your relationship.

Some common impulses it is better to avoid include: 

  • Putting pressure on them. It can sometimes overwhelm a person with cancer to hear statements like "You're so brave,” or “You’re too strong to let this beat you,” or “Keep up a positive attitude.” If they’re afraid of appearing weak or vulnerable to you, they won’t be able to communicate honestly.
  • Commenting on appearance. Telling someone they look pale or look like they’ve lost weight is a good way to make them self-conscious or fearful – and if it’s true, it’s probably something they already know.
  • Sharing war stories. You may know someone else who had cancer, but it’s a mistake to think everyone’s experience will be the same.
  • Offering unsolicited advice. Telling people what to do when they don't ask for help is rarely a good idea, even if your intentions are the best.
  • Being patronizing or condescending.
  • Being afraid to touch. A hug or touch on the shoulder will help the person with cancer know you care and that you accept him or her.
  • Being ashamed of your own fears or uneasiness. 

     

    When offering help

    It is important to ask the person with cancer what you can do to help. Some people may want your help; others may not. However, isolation is a common feeling for someone with cancer, so it's important to make an effort to reach out.

    You may offer to: 

    • run errands
    • go grocery shopping
    • help with household chores, such as vacuuming or dusting
    • help with cleaning, washing dishes, or laundry
    • water plants
    • cook and freeze meals
    • help with children or pets
    • mow the lawn or weed the garden
    • help with transportation
    • bring flowers, magazines, books, videos, or DVDs

    On-the-job support 

    If the person with cancer happens to be a co-worker, or an employee, there are some additional issues to consider.

    For instance, you may wonder how your work situation will be affected by a co-worker’s diagnosis and treatment. Supervisors may wonder what they can do to best help the person while still getting the work done.

    Also, there are issues of confidentiality and the possibility of recurrence in the future. These and more are explained in detail in our document “When Someone You Work With Has Cancer.”

    Related information 

    Available in English and Spanish, the following related documents may be requested by calling our toll-free number, 1-800-ACS-2345, any time, day or night:

    Tips on Talking to the Person With Cancer

    Talking With Friends and Relatives About Cancer (also available in Spanish)

    A Message of Hope: Coping With Cancer in Everyday Life (also available in Spanish)

    Anxiety, Fear, and Depression (also available in Spanish)

 

Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff


ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.

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