What to Say to Someone With Cancer

Daily Health Solutions
on September 30, 2009

Talking about cancer isn't easy. If anyone knows that, it's four-time survivor Don Wilhelm. Don's heard his share of comments that were well-intentioned, but fell flat. Like the time someone said, "Well, if you're going to get cancer, that's the one you want" at the news of Don's lymphoma diagnosis. "That's like saying, 'If you're going to get hit by a bus, you want it to be a Greyhound,'" Don says.

But the possibility of making such a faux pas shouldn't leave you tongue-tied around friends and family dealing with cancer or other chronic illnesses. We asked psychologist David Kessler, grief and loss expert with Tributes.com, for advice on navigating the tough talks.

Take your cue from them. "If you ask, 'How's treatment?' and their answer is brief and they change the subject, they don't wish to talk about it," Kessler says. Best respect their boundaries. "Denial is a very important coping mechanism. There's nothing wrong with taking a break from the pain," he says. "You just need them to know whenever they want to talk about it, you're there."

Don't be afraid to make a mistake. "Let go of what the 'right thing' is, and just be present for them," Kessler says. "Say, 'I don't know what to say. I'm lost too.' If you act like you have it all together, it can make a person feel even more lost. Show you're vulnerable."

Let them know you'll "go there." Your Dad/co-worker/best friend needs to know you're willing to talk, Kessler says. "Say, 'I don't know whether you want to talk about your cancer, but I'm here for the small conversations and the big ones.'"

Reach out. Don't wait for an invitation—just call, drop by, arrange to visit if you live long distance. "Don't hesitate," Kessler says. "A life-challenging diagnosis is a reminder that life is not forever. You can run from it, or you can dive in and live life fully. I say, live life."