What to Say to a Cancer Patient

I had fully planned to write a post for this blog on Wednesday but by mid-week I just couldn’t muster the mental energy.  Today is Sunday and after two days off work and the treatment schedule I’ve finally found the energy and time to knock out some writing. But more than that, I’ve gotten to a place where I need to write.  Who knows I might write two posts so I’ll have something later in the week when I am feeling weaker.

When I started out on blogging about dealing with this cancer I thought that I’d write something every three days even if it was something short and not well thought out.  Turns out I can’t do that.  I tried a couple of times last week to write these three sentence posts with bad jokes and random complaints.  But just before I press the “publish” key it felt wrong and I deleted it.  (I do that on Facebook and something in me said that these blog posts should be for other purposes.)

So today I’ll move the conversation to a higher plane and give you the obligatory “What to say to a cancer patient” post.

Really.  I promise – here is everything you’ll need to know about talking to people with cancer.

Well. Why? First I’ve always wondered myself and if you surf the internet enough and look up people keeping blogs about their cancer they all have a post that deals with the question.  Many on-line support forums have conversation threads that discuss the matter and there are a wealth of articles on the subject.

Naturally being a cancer “victim,” “fighter” and a “survivor” (I am working on a post about all the things we label people with cancer that seriously annoy me) I am an expert in what to say to a cancer patient.  Just ask all the people who wrote the blogs, posts and articles noted above – just being cancer patient gives you an authority and credibility that none of you “normal” people have.  I am not sure what it is, but I am guessing that cancer cells somehow change your brain, neurological processes and presto you get wisdom you’ve never had before.

I wonder when that kicks in?  It’s almost two months and I don’t feel any wiser yet.

I’ll admit that I don’t really know the “correct” answer,  (wow, I am using a lot of quoted words today).  But I do hold a BA in English and have great research skills so I went and looked it up for you.  I’ve read many blogs and articles on the subject and after being sensitive to all these author’s needs and feelings on the subject here is my list of what you can say to a person with cancer:


Yup, nothing.

My goodness but these cancer folks are a pissed off bunch. I checked all the things on my list that I’d say to someone with cancer an it was on someone’s list of things not to say. I read one source (I won’t cite) that said they found even saying, “that sucks” is offensive to them – offensive is the word they used.  My reaction was – whoa, dude, chill.

Now I should say that most of the authors who I am talking about have a post or article titled more like this, “What not to say to someone with cancer.”  But one of the lessons my father taught me was to try to put everything into positive terms so I turned the question around to its positive version.  I tried looking up sources on what to say but the number of good sources was thin so I had to look up the negative just to get some material for this post.  Seems like the world prefers to be negative and offended rather than positive and forgiving (mini sermon over).

After all this academic research I’ve decided to reject every thing I’ve read and to offer the following list of what to say.

But first let me offer an observation on dealing with us wise cancer patients.  We’re a mixed bag and how we’ll react to you depends on where we are at the moment.  Shortly after someone gets the diagnosis of cancer, anger is emotion of the day.  It really is upsetting and often there is no one or thing to blame for the cancer so the anger gets directed at any target in sight.  The life change that cancer forces is hard to describe and the possibility that it could end your life is hard to ignore.  Anger is a natural response.  So when your friend tells you they have cancer understand that, yes, they are likely pissed off and will react to almost anything you say with anger.  Depression likely will follow and your friend the cancer patient will likely not want to talk about anything.

Once treatments start the whole picture changes.  Physically ill, in pain, fatigued and depressed is likely to be some of the states you’ll find your friend. What can you say to comfort someone there?  I don’t really know but I’ll tell you that it’s not the same thing you say to someone who has just got the news.

All you can do is to be sensitive to their needs of the moment.  If you can’t be sensitive – just shut up.

So here is my promised list of what you can say to a person when you learn they have cancer:

  • Dude!
  • Holy crap, that sucks, (or any four letter word or combination that expresses shock while still maintaining a hint of empathy).
  • I don’t know what to say (but only if you don’t know what to say)
  • I’ll pray for you
  • I’ll be thinking of you
  • If you need someone to talk to, I will listen (and please if they say they need to talk, keep your mouth shut and let them talk, please)

Avoid this: “If there is anything I can do, call”  Chances are your friend doesn’t know what they need and the question is a bit of a burden at this stage.  Instead offer to do something specific that you know you can do. Something like, “If you need a ride to an appointment” or “If you need help with house/yard work?” Or my favorite – “I’ve got a collection of bad 70’s and 80’s science fiction movies, want to borrow some?”  (and yes a friend has provided me with “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” now I am looking for a copy of “Swamp Thing”). More importantly don’t offer unless you’re sincere with the offer of help.  If you can’t give physical help to your friend, then a simple, “I’ll be praying for you” is the best gift you can give.

There is nothing I value more than knowing that I have true friends who are willing to stay with me while I travel this road – even if only in prayer and thought.

Once you know you’re friend has cancer what do you say them?  Well, how about just normal stuff.  Frankly I get tired of talking about this cancer thing and for just a few minutes I’d like to live in a world where my life didn’t suck and I was facing a future dealing with medical problems.  So please ask me if I’ve read any good books or did I see the game last Sunday (and I did – can you believe the 49er’s fumbled away their first chance in a decade at the super bowl – dudes what?, man).

But I’ll tell you now that if you ask, “how are you?” to be prepared for any number of answers – some likely to be inappropriate and rude depending on how I’m really feel that day.  So let me apologize in advance if I ever answer that question with a long string of four letter expletives…

All I can really say is that I know it is hard to talk to someone like me.  You want to be supportive and helpful.  You’ve got some great advice to give.  You’re uncle Bob just found out and you’d like to learn more about my disease. You want the latest news about me.  You still want to be my friend but you also want to give me my space.  wow – you’re conflicted…

So the point is that all those blogs and articles are wrong.  I am still your friend.  I am the same person you used to be able to talk to.

So just talk.  Just be honest. Just be caring. Just act from love.

It’s that simple.

About Andrew Reynolds

Born in California Did the school thing studying electronics, computers, release engineering and literary criticism. I worked in the high tech world doing software release engineering and am now retired. Then I got prostate cancer. Now I am a blogger and work in my wood shop doing scroll saw work and marquetry.
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4 Responses to What to Say to a Cancer Patient

  1. jaggh53163 says:

    Thank you for your frank and honest suggestions.
    Your marquetry tissue box is beautiful. I’m looking forward to future posts on whatever interests you.
    Thanks for the LIKE on my blog.


  2. Pingback: The Year in Review Post « Andrew's View of the Week

  3. YAPCaB says:

    When people asked me if there was anything they could do I always responded with “a new Lamborghini would be nice, and I don’t mean a model”.


  4. Marvin Tanner says:

    We missed you and Heather in church yesterday. I wish I could write like you and Buster. I had two melanomas over ten years ago. I didn’t get depressed as I somehow knew that surgery would be succesful, which obviously it was. I have not been depressed over my present condition. I’ve experienced the love of many friends, including our church. My official condition is a “ASIA C” spinal cord injury. ASIA D is the best and ASIA A is the the worst. I have what they call an incomplete spinal cord injury. I have a good chance of recovery, but not guaranteed. So, I work one step at a time for full recovery. I’ll be happy with what ever I get. So hang in there buddy.
    See you soon, Marv


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