February 7, 2018

How to talk to someone with cancer or their loved ones

Mom has a lot of friends, which has been wonderful support. It can also be tricky as most people don't know what to talk about. We found the following advice relevant.

Adapted from cancer.net, cancer.net/coping, cancercenter.com.
- Talk about topics other than cancer. Talking about usual topics may help provide a sense of balance. The intent is not to distract your friend or their family member, but to help him or her maintain usual interests and connections and take a break from difficult conversations. Chances are they want to feel as normal as possible. Tell them about something funny that happened. And save the pity eyes and voice. Be sure to include your friend when talking to others in the room. Assume that your friend can hear you even if they seem to be asleep or dazed.
- Be aware of intrusive questions. Don't ask questions about their cancer or treatments. People with cancer and their loved ones are often asked many questions by their friends and family, and it can become physically and emotionally draining to repeat the same information on such a painful topic. If there is information that is unknown or not shared, do not push for more. Give them the freedom to offer health information or not. Do not share details about their health with others or post on social media without their permission.
- If you do talk about cancer, share encouraging stories. Offer encouragement through success stories of long-term cancer survivors. Avoid saying “They had the same thing as you.” No two cancers are the same. And never ever tell stories with unhappy endings. If you know someone with the same type of cancer, offer to connect them.
- Choose your words carefully. Your words and actions can be powerful. One comment can instantly undo someone's positive mood. Don't be overly grave and mournful. Avoid clich├ęs, like "hero" and "battle." If the person gets worse, does it mean they didn't fight hard enough? Try to imagine if you were in their shoes.
Here are some things you can say to help show your care and support:
- If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen.
- I care about you.
- I’m thinking about you.
- How can I help?
- I'm sorry this has happened to you.
Here are examples of phrases that are unhelpful:
- I know just how you feel.
- I know just what you should do.
- I’m sure you’ll be fine. Don’t worry.
- What is the prognosis?
- How long do you have?
- Keep it about them, not you. Don't lose your focus on the person with cancer. Avoid talking about your headache, backache, etc. This isn't about you. And as bad as you feel, they feel worse. Don't put them in the position of having to comfort you.
- Just listen. Sometimes just being there to listen—really listen— is the best thing you can do. Let the person talk without interrupting them. You don't always have to have all the answers, just a sympathetic ear. They may not want to talk at all, and would rather sit quietly. It's okay to sit in silence.
- Don't minimize their experience. Try not to say "Don't worry, you'll be fine." You don't know that. These statements downplay what they're going through. Instead say "I'm really sorry" or "I hope it will be okay." Leave the door to communication open so they can talk about their fears and concerns.

- Don't preach to them. Don't try to tell the person with cancer what to think, feel or how to act. You don't know what they're going through, so don't act like you do. Instead of saying "I know how you feel," try saying "I care about you and want to help." Don't suggest alternative forms of treatment, a healthier lifestyle, etc. And don't tell them to "stay positive," it will only cause frustration and guilt.
- Refrain from physical assessments. Refrain from comments about how the person with cancer looks, particularly if it's negative. They don't need their weight loss or hair loss pointed out to them. And if they just started treatment, don't ask them about potential side effects. If you say anything at all, tell them they look stronger or more beautiful, but mean what you say.
- Show them you care. Show the person with cancer that they’re still needed and loved. Give them a hug. Surprise them with books, magazines, or music.
- Make sure it is okay to give advice. Before you offer any advice, ask if it is okay and be prepared to stop if you are not encouraged to continue. Unsolicited advice may cause unnecessary stress.

- Ask if practical support would be helpful. Offer specific examples of ways you could help during cancer treatment, such as cooking, laundry, driving, babysitting or running errands. Be specific by asking “What day can I bring you dinner?” This approach is better than saying, “Let me know if you need any help,” as that places the burden on them. If your friend declines an offer, do not take it personally. If many friends and family members volunteer to help, you may offer to coordinate everyone's efforts.
- Keep visits short. Ask how long you can stay and stick to that. Do not drop by uninvited as the family may be going through a tough time or may simply want their privacy. In tough times, families often only see a few friends or request specific help from specific people. If they can not see you, do not be offended and do not make this about you.

- Stay connected. Some people disappear when someone they know gets cancer. The worst thing you can do is avoid the person because you don’t know how to handle it. Cancer can be lonely and isolating as it is. Tell them "I'm here for you," or "I love you and we'll get through this together." It's even okay to say "I don't know what to say" or send a note that says "I'm thinking of you." If you do not hear back from them, do not take it personally as they may be busy or going through a difficult time. Just hearing from you is enough to let them know that you care.