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Your Friend with Cancer: Finding the Right Words

November 23, 2021

When a close friend or loved one is diagnosed with cancer, what’s the right thing to say? Even with the best of intentions, certain language or topics might not be “right” for your friend or may make them uncomfortable. You may wonder how to respond, what to say about their prognosis, or whether they want to avoid talking about cancer at all.

In the first of four articles dedicated to supporting your friend with cancer, Stephanie Broussard, MSSW, LCSW-S, APHSW-C, director of palliative care and social work – an expert in the psychosocial aspect of cancer treatment – shares how to find the right words to say.

What should you say when a friend tells you they’ve been diagnosed with cancer?

The first thing you can say is, “Thank you for sharing that with me.” You, your friend, and their loved ones will be experiencing all kinds of emotions and trying to process this news. At its core, this moment is about empathizing with your friend and allowing them the space to “be.” Give your friend the space to say as little or as much as they want and tell them things like, “I love you, and I care about you.”

You’re not alone.” That’s the goal – you don’t want your friend, family member, fellow patient, or anyone to feel like they’re going through this alone.

Are there certain language choices or topics to avoid when talking to a friend or loved one with cancer?

Always follow your friend’s lead – if they don’t want to talk about cancer, check in and then talk about something else. It’s also important to note that your stories about other people you know who’ve had cancer, whether positive or negative, often aren’t helpful. Your friend is likely dealing with an overwhelming amount of information and decisions, so don’t add to that by sharing all the stories you’ve heard or information you’ve been researching, unless asked.

Is it appropriate to ask questions about your friend’s condition or prognosis?

Talking about your friend’s cancer depends on your relationship and comfort level with each other. Sometimes patients may be processing their own prognosis or may feel pressured to have the “right” answer right away.

A good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t normally discuss health issues with your friend, talking about their cancer may not be appropriate (unless they share that information with you). Help your friend set boundaries by saying things like:

  • “I want to be as supportive as I can while also respecting your privacy.”
  • “If I ever ask a question that’s uncomfortable for you to answer, please tell me.”
  • “How much are you comfortable sharing with me?”

Everyone’s response to a cancer diagnosis is different. How do you decide which approach to take in talking with your friend?

It’s nice to say, “call me if you need anything at all,” but it’s likely that they won’t call. Talking to doctors, family, employers, and more can be too much. That’s why Careopolis is a great way for your friend to share updates with their chosen “caring community” in a private manner.

If your friend doesn’t want to talk about cancer, offer your support in other ways, like setting up a Meal Train, picking their children up from school, walking the dog, or filling their car up with gas. Even small gestures, like sending a “thinking about you” card, lets your friend know that you care about them while also respecting their boundaries.

What’s most meaningful thing you’ve heard someone say to their friend with cancer?

“You’re not alone.” That’s the goal – you don’t want your friend, family member, fellow patient, or anyone to feel like they’re going through this alone. It sounds simple, but it’s what we try to convey across all of our services at Texas Oncology. We want patients to feel seen, heard, supported, and understood.

During the holidays, it’s even more important for your friend to feel included. Our feelings can be complex. Though they may not have the energy to talk or attend a gathering, they still want to be invited. They also may feel guilty or disappointed that they aren’t able to participate. If you can give them opportunities to make memories and have intentional moments of joy with those they love, you can create hope when your friend might feel hopeless.

For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org.