I have facilitated cancer support groups for about 10 years. I would say one of the most frequent topics discussed in group was, "What not to say to a cancer survivor". Members expressed frustration, validation and even some laughter regarding comments made to them during their cancer experience. Regardless of diagnosis, experiences or challenges, they faced as individuals, this topic ignited the very essence of what brings people to a support group. The message, "You are not alone" and "I hear you".
As you read this blog, please understand I am not suggesting one takes this as a 'Do's and Don'ts' list. Responding to emotional needs and offering support is not black and white or right and wrong. I am simply identifying some things to consider as you provide support and communicate with your coworkers, friends and family, who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Opinions varied regarding specific comments or situations. However, there were some common themes, surrounding what not to say, or at least things to consider, when offering support to someone diagnosed with cancer.
"You look great!" Now, this statement, in and of itself, obviously has no ill-will attached to it. Complimenting someone is not a bad thing. Although, when some received this compliment, they felt people did not validate their whole experience. It may have taken a cancer survivor 3 hours, 2 naps and 1 pain pill to get out the door. They may physically look good. However, what is lost in this comment is any understanding of how they may be feeling or what they are going through. People may assume, "if you look good, you are doing good'. One member shared, her friend once greeted her with an enthusiastic, "You look great!". She said her friend expressed this greeting with such excitement and relief that she didn't have the heart to tell her she just vomited in the bathroom before her friend hugged her.
Consider: Next time you want to highlight someone's physical appearance, remember the phrase, "Don't judge a book by its cover". I don't think people mind the compliment. Most likely, they appreciate the mention. Consider finding a deeper way to connect.
- "You look great. I know you have a lot going on. I wonder how you are doing/feeling with it all".
"You are going to be OK"! This comment would produce an equal amount of frustration and humor in group. A group member shared her lighthearted response to a friend who told her "you are going to be just fine!" after sharing her diagnosis with her... "Oh my, I didn't know I was friends with God. I would have bought you a better Christmas present". Often, out of our own discomfort or uncertainty of what to say, we make comments that contradict our intention; one of offering support and understanding. No one can predict nor prescribe someone's experience or outcome. Even if one receives a positive prognosis, with minimal treatment, they are still dealing with a variety of emotions, changes and challenges. An attempt to encourage optimism and hope may take away from the full spectrum of feelings one is experiencing as a cancer survivor.
Consider: Instead of cheering your friends or family up, let them know how much they mean to you.
- "You are so important to me. I hate you are going through this. I want the best for you and hope you recover quickly".
- "I care for you deeply. I hope you feel better soon".
- "I can't make any of this go away but I hope the love and support I am sending you helps in your recovery and healing".
"Don't worry. God doesn't give you more than you can handle". I said this once to a teenage boy, who lost his father. I remember because I can still see his face and body language after hearing my words. I never want to say this again to someone struggling or grieving. A member said in group it seemed she was being punished for being strong. Another way to rephrase this comment is, "The stronger you become, you are at greater risk of loss and major struggle because God believes you can handle it". Based on this rationale, how many grievers or cancer survivors would prefer being seen as weak to avoid some of life's greatest heartaches? It also implies, if you have a spiritual faith, you shouldn't have feelings of fear or worry because God (or whoever you pray to or believe in) is in charge. Having a spiritual belief often provides great comfort through challenges but it should not void our basic human experience of feeling.
Consider: Validating their feelings and experience, which may include conflicting and overwhelming feelings.
- "This doesn't seem fair you have to deal with this".
- "I hear how hard this is for you. It's okay to feel what you are feeling".
- "Let it out. You don't have to hold it in. You don't have to do this alone".
If they express conflict within their beliefs, validate this can be a normal and natural response for others. Trying to fix or challenge their spiritual conflicts may make them feel defensive or judged, leaving them to feel more alone than they already feel.
"Don't stress. Just Relax" (and the bonus comment) "You will only make yourself more sick". I don't think anyone hasn't heard how stress can be harmful. People already know this. A member shared: She received a $5,000 medical bill, while looking at the 15 pills she needed to take for the day, when this 'helpful 'advice from her husband popped in her head. She said she wanted to burst with laughter and anger at the ridiculousness of this comment. Telling someone not to stress only puts more pressure and expectations on them. Feelings are sneaky. If we avoid them, they find a way to show up. Sometimes under the disguise of physical symptoms, slammed doors, sleeping too much, isolation, lack of motivation, risky behavior...you get the idea. I often use the analogy of a boiling pot of water to describe what happens when we stuff our feelings. What happens to boiling water when we put a lid on it? It creates pressure and the water overflows. If we take the lid off, the water still boils but it evaporates and is released. Our feelings may be uncomfortable, big and intense. We can't control them. However, if we experience and give them the space they need, they can evaporate and be released.
Consider: Listening to how your family and friends are affected by the stress in their life.
- "That sounds like a lot to be going through. Do you want to share more about how you are doing?" (Sometimes cancer survivors do not want to talk about what they are going through. They want a break from cancer talk. It can be helpful to check-in first, before asking them questions.)
- I am here to listen when you are having a tough time. I imagine it's hard going through all of this. I want you to know you are not alone".
- "What seems to be the hardest thing you have to deal with right now?"
- "How have things changed for you since your diagnosis?
Consider: Offering your support or service. Offer practical assistance such as; grocery shopping, cooking a meal, laundry, drive them to appointments, or organize paperwork. "Let me know if I can help" is a more passive way to offer support. It puts the responsibility on the cancer survivor, often making them feel like they are imposing or burdening their family and friends. Make your offer specific and concrete. Have them be part of the planning to best meet their needs.
- "What is one thing I can take off your plate?"
- "I would like to organize a meal plan. Do you have any food restrictions during treatment?"
- "I would like to go grocery shopping for you. Which day is the best to deliver food?"
Suggesting alternative and holistic treatment: Members appreciated their family and friends wanting them to have the best care to beat cancer. However, many expressed feeling overwhelmed by the suggestions and information. It's challenging to stay focused, retain and track information during treatment. "Chemo brain" is a REAL thing. Keep in mind if you are offering your suggestions, opinions, ideas and methods, there are probably others doing the same. Yes, you believe your information is the best and will really work. Guess what? So does everyone else. With many diagnoses, action needs to be taken right away. Healthy lifestyle changes can be beneficial but they usually take time, effort, money and energy. A member shared he believed he would die if he 'didn't do it all'. When he realized the stress from the lifestyle changes was outweighing the benefits, he decided to pace himself and ask others to help him implement the changes he wished to make. Another member shared she almost lost it when one friend shared a story of a man, curing his cancer, by eating a large amount of broccoli per day. While another friend's article suggested not to eat man-made vegetables, broccoli being one of them.
Consider: Ask your loved one if they want you to research any complimentary or alternative practitioners or methods.
"I read an interesting article about _______, would you like me to share it with you?"
"Would you like me to find out more information on that treatment for you?"
"I have heard of a naturopath, who specialized in oncology, would you like me to get her name?"
My aunt's best friend's daughter had the same cancer. Everyone's cancer diagnosis, body and response to treatment will differ. Please withhold from sharing any upsetting or difficult stories. Period. Emily McDowell has a greeting card line that has some humorous and honest 'Empathy' cards. One which reads, "When life gives you lemons. I promise I won't tell you a story about my cousin's friend, who died from lemons".
A cancer survivor is overwhelmed with their own diagnosis, hearing stories of others, may be too much. Often, people share stories to share hope. Many grab onto this hope but for others, it produces additional worry. If someone's treatment isn't going as expected, these stories can produce comparison and judgement. Why isn't it working for me? What am I doing wrong?
Consider: Ask the cancer survivor if they want to hear about the 'somebody' you know before telling them. One of the biggest losses a cancer survivor experiences is a loss of control and choice. Giving them choices, even ones that seem small, helps them feel valued and empowered.
Another significant loss is unwanted alone-ness. If you are trying to make the cancer survivor not feel alone, connect with them. Be with them. Listen and ask about their experiences and treatment, rather than shifting focus to someone else.
Some cancer survivors may not be affected or concerned about some of these comments. Some may say, "Bring on the compliments" "Bring on the pep talks" "Bring on the small talk" And, that is OKAY! I hope, at minimal, this blog prompts us to check-in, pause, and consider what our loved one's cancer diagnosis is bringing up in ourselves and them before reacting. I can't tell you what you should say. However, I know considering how we say something can be key to creating connection and support. If you have said some of these comments to your loved ones, don't worry. Most people appreciate the intention behind these comments. I know I have said some of these comments myself. Don't worry about saying the right words. Remember this quote from Maya Angelou:
"People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel".
Be Genuine. Be Transparent. Be Open. Be Curious. Be Authentic.