Supporting someone you love when they’ve been diagnosed with cancer is difficult. Worrying about saying the wrong thing, their emotional state, and what will happen to your relationship all factor into your interactions with them from the moment they tell you about their diagnosis. It is inevitable that you may say or do something that negatively impacts your loved one with cancer. Depending on their personality and your relationship, they may not tell you when you do something wrong.
Luckily, other cancer patients don’t have that problem! There is a wealth of online articles discussing the do’s and don’ts of interacting with your loved one who is sick, which can be overwhelming. However, there are several points that come up again and again when discussing how best to be there for your loved one with cancer. We have collected the most essential pieces together in this list of how to best be there for your loved one:
Do: take your cues from them. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t push them into a conversation they aren’t prepared for or don’t want to have. Asking someone to share details about their treatment and what is happening to their body is intensely personal.
Don’t: share your cancer story. Telling someone who has been diagnosed with cancer about how your mother-in-law died of cancer is not helpful… and might send the wrong message about what you think their chances of survival are.
Do: let them know you care, that you will be there for them, and that you will support them in whatever capacity they need… even if that doesn’t match what you think they need.
Don’t: ask how they are. People with cancer are constantly inundated with questions about their health, their disease, their state of mind… and it is exhausting. Let them know that you’re there for them if they want to talk, but don’t push.
Do: include them in normal social events, but also be understanding if they have to cancel or decline.
Don’t: try to be empathetic by saying you understand how they feel. Sympathize, but don’t compare your experiences and feelings to theirs if you have never had cancer. Phrases such as “I can’t imagine how you feel” are far more meaningful, and real, than “I know exactly how you feel”.
Do: listen without adding your own input. This can be challenging, but can also be so meaningful to someone who is sick.
Don’t: recommend a miracle cure you found on the internet. Just… don’t.
Do: avoid platitudes such as “everything happens for a reason” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” that don’t mean much… and that they’re constantly hearing from everyone else in their life.
Don’t: tell them to stay positive, or any other message that tells the cancer patient to regulate their outward displays of their emotions. “Stay positive”, “you’re so strong”, and “you’re so brave” all communicate to cancer patients that they can’t reveal their real moods to you without judgement, that they can’t display any weakness, and that they are at fault for their own illness because they weren’t upbeat enough.
Do: respect their decisions when it comes to their treatment and their health.
All of this advice boils down to one simple principle: this is not about you, but the person with cancer. This idea is encapsulated by the Ring Theory, developed by Susan Silk, a clinical psychologist, when she had breast cancer. It uses rings in a circle to designate proximity to a trauma, with the person experiencing the trauma (in this case, cancer) in the very centre. The person in the centre ring can say whatever they want about their trauma. So can everyone else – but only to people in the larger rings. When talking to someone in a smaller ring than yours, the goal is to help, to listen and provide comfort and support.
Ultimately, this is the most important thing you can do for someone with cancer. Mistakes in language, phrasing, and terminology are inevitable and understandable, and very much forgiveable. Being mindful of the impact your words can have, listening carefully to what your loved one is saying, and being there for them throughout their treatment is the most important thing you can do for your loved one with cancer.