A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Talking about cancer: What to say to a loved one

Cancer / Wings / Supporting a loved one in their diagnosis

After a loved one receives a cancer diagnosis, talking about cancer can be hard.

After a loved one receives a cancer diagnosis, talking about cancer can be hard. Should I bring up the subject of cancer or not mention it at all? It is hard to know what words or actions could help during this time.

“I encourage family or friends to continue to keep communication open. If they are unsure if they should bring up the subject of cancer, they can ask their loved one if they wish to talk about it. They can also show support without words by providing a comforting presence and a listening ear,” said Marcy Elwood, MSW, oncology social worker with Marshfield Clinic Health System.

It is important to remember that the person who has been diagnosed with cancer needs support during this time. Below are four tips to help you navigate difficult conversations.

Sometimes you should just listen

Before offering advice, ask if it is OK to do so. Sometimes people going through a cancer experience wish to share how they are feeling and aren’t necessarily looking for cheerleading or advice. Try not to think about what to say next and just let the conversation flow.

“When talking to a loved one, be present and actively listen. Give them your full attention. Listening can oftentimes be the easiest way to show support,” Elwood said.

Avoid certain statements and phrases

Hearing that your friend or family member is going through a difficult experience can make you feel helpless and it’s natural to want to offer comforting statements. It is important to choose words carefully.

You should avoid phrases such as:

  • “I know what you are going through.”
  • “I know how you must feel.”
  • “You will be OK.”
  • “Everything will be fine.”

These statements can make your loved one feel like you are not taking their feelings seriously and can seem dismissive.

Instead you can try one of these statements:

  • “If you wish to talk, I am here.”
  • “I want you to know that I am thinking about you.”
  • “How can I help?”
  • “I’m sorry you are going through this.”

Not every conversation needs to be about cancer

Talk about topics that you both enjoyed prior to your loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Share updates on your own life. Stay in touch with your friend or family member. Sometimes a phone call or text message lets them know that you are thinking about them.

Be heartfelt and genuine

When supporting a loved one through cancer, lead with your heart and do what feels most comfortable.

Offer support that feels right to you. For some it is emotional support, while others prefer offering practical support. Examples of practical support include providing transportation to medical appointments or helping around the house.

For more information or resources about talking cancer and supporting a loved one, talk to a member of their care team.

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