What to Say to a Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patient

By Guest Blogger   |  27Comments|

Today I got the news that someone I love has cancer. I’m not going to call for a few days because I remember the initial hit of the diagnosis. It is a panic that doesn’t show any signs of subsiding. I remember trying to wash windows several hours after I heard the news and getting mad at the people who told me to stop. I was looking for a brief escape from the words, “You have cancer.” Later that night – after it had finally sunk in – I became quite sick, almost as if my body’s natural reaction was to purge itself of my horrible reality. I went to bed crying and woke up crying.

So I have been mentally walking through the upcoming conversation with this person. I’m sure she is devastated to the point of numbness. I found myself filing through old memories of what was said to me. Some great and some really awful. So from one who experienced it, I can at least offer a few gems of how to talk to a newly diagnosed cancer patient:

1. It’s OK to cry, but not OK to lose it. Unless you are the spouse, child or parent of the person with cancer, do not put them in a situation where they have to console you. This is the main reason I’m waiting a few days to talk to her. I can process the information myself and call when I’m reasonably calm.

2. Don’t say, “Everything’s going to be all right.” You don’t know that. And don’t tell that person about your Aunt Gina who battled cancer and lived to be 101. Guess what, I’m not Aunt Gina. These stories didn’t help at all. I know that cancer doesn’t play fair, and I’m already crabby that I’m cancer’s most recent benefactor.

3. No links in the inbox, please. The offering of information to a newly diagnosed cancer patient is not always a great idea. They are already dealing with information overload. The links that tell you what causes cancer imply that we did something blameworthy. The ones that claim chemo is a pharmaceutical conspiracy will put us into a panic. The ones that offer holistic alternatives such as coffee enemas and angel readings will stress us out. (When will I find time/money for that?). And the ones that offer products for faster hair regrowth are just plain insensitive. Yes, I got every one of those links.

4. Don’t ignore it or pretend like you don’t know when you see them. I was OK with, “I really don’t know what to say.” Cancer reminds us of how vulnerable we are, so as patients we are OK with your honesty. Just remember suggestion number 1.

5. Don’t ask what you can do to help. I was too exhausted to think about everything that needed to be done and then assign tasks. Think of something, make a plan and follow through. Food is always appreciated. What needs to be done at your home? Is it the season to rake leaves or hang Christmas lights? These are things that just won’t get done during chemo but those little nuggets of normalcy are huge for the cancer patient.

6. Acknowledge. Text, email and send cards and/or flowers. Even if the patient is just an acquaintance, positive words are powerful. As patients we are going to grieve the roadblock that has been placed in our path. Reminders of what we have to be positive about put us back in balance and truly support our fight.

The one thing I can offer people who are recently diagnosed with a devastating illness is the unspoken knowledge that I get it. I get the pain, the anger and the unfairness of it all. Even so, because every situation is so unique I won’t compare our experiences or even talk about it unless she asks. Especially in the beginning. At that point, the only thing I really want to say is that I’m in her corner.

Amy Annis, a crazy sexy cancer survivor, is a believer of the healing power of yoga. After teaching for over a decade she launched her yoga retreat business on beautiful Madeline Island, Wi for all levels of yoginis and adventurers.

Photo credit: niznoz

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27 responses to What to Say to a Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patient
  1. Very well said! It brought me back to that day back in 1995 when I heard the words “You have cancer”. There were so many people who meant well, but definitely said the wrong thing. Sometimes now I look back on some of those inappropriate (but well intentioned) comments and I actually laugh. I truly find them to be humorous. Believe me, in 1995 I didn’t find the comments to be funny and I never dreamed that in 2011 I would look back and laugh. Thank you for this insightful piece!

  2. Good advice. I got – “This is your wake up call”, followed by 50 pages of alkaline and nonalkaline foods to eat or not eat, which broke my fax machine , and my heart. My experience was not a Martina McBride song……

  3. I got ‘but you look really well’ as if I was making it up. No, I really DO have stage 4 cancer! It was the notes and cards full of loving support, the bags of pears and baskets of plums left on the doorstep, the friends inviting me over for a cup of tea (instead of dropping by and reminding me I needed to hoover or do the dishes) and the friends who became healing buddies: my acupuncture partner, my reiki friend, the reflexology ladies . . . we ended up making different dates than cocktails. Still got together regularly, and had lunch or juice but also threw in a treatment so my schedule was sociable not just medical.

  4. Great post! We talked about how to help a caregiver yesterday on our Facebook page. The community echoed your #5 loud and clear. Pick something tangible and follow through with it. Walk their dog, pick their kids up from soccer practice, rake the leaves, etc. Here’s the link to the discussion: http://on.fb.me/sJWLB7 Thanks for this blog.

  5. Thank you for a wonderful and important post. I´m so grateful for the response my friends and family gave me when I was diagnosed. None of them were inappropriate. They just shared my grief and let me know that they love me. When I think back, the “I love you”s are the words that stayed with me and gave me strength through the pain and sorrow.

  6. Thanks for sharing this… I think so many people have no idea what to say and how to support people going through cancer or other illnesses.

  7. Everything about this post makes so much sense. Though I’ve never had cancer, my mother was diagnosed when I was in high school. All the questions about what people could do, offers of information, etc. often made the situation more difficult. Thank you!

  8. Thanks so much for posting this. True True True. Lori

  9. I’m so glad this post resonates with so many of you. I think you are right Melomeals that so many people dont know what to say at all….don’t let this fear keep you away. I love the pic they used for this blog post; that says it best.

  10. Thanks so much for posting this. I think the most important thing is to say SOMETHING. Even if it’s just “I’m sorry this is happening to you.” or “Cancer sucks!”. When I told people about my rare cancer, I was shocked at the non-response I got from some (not all!). Sometimes I wonder if I would have had a more common cancer that was easy to pronounce and rally around, if it would have been easier for them to offer support. When they fail to acknowledge or even ask about it, it really does hurt. We all want to feel like we’re not alone in this journey. Be careful with gifts of food – while I think they’re wonderful for caregivers/families (I had a lovely friend drop off food for my husband when I was in the hospital and it was so appreciated), the patient themselves may be on a restrictive diet after surgery or treatment. And if you have a speciality or services you can offer- that can really be appreciated (I had a wonderful neighbor who did rieki, facials, etc.) and it was such a treat as I was recovering. And of course, the pic on this blog post says it all.

  11. Truly wonderful and insightful. Thank you.

  12. “Think of something, make a plan and follow through. ” – I think this is very important, particularly after the first few weeks, that’s when a lot of the phone calls subside. Make a plan with several other people, trade one afternoon a week, stop by, let it be known it’s okay if the person going through treatment isn’t up for it and is sleeping because just being there is more comforting than anything and I think the consistency of people being there through the whole treatment which can last months if very important.

  13. Thank you so much for this advice. I’ve always felt a little lost about how to handle situations like these, and I think your tips will help me show up and be a better friend next time I know someone dealing with a difficult diagnosis.

  14. Thank you! this blog post really nailed it. When I was diagnosed with cancer, my husband and I talked about what we called “Everybody’s an oncologist” syndrome. I don’t ever want to hear again that sugar calls tumors to grow (usually right before dessert is served), whether I’m on a macrobiotic diet or that I should try herbal treatments. The “chemo is poison” and “it’s a conspiracy between doctors and big pharma” discussion just smacks of disapproval of any conventional treatment (sorry folks, big pharma helped save my life no matter what you might think of them). People don’t know what to say, and really just want to help, so we as survivors need to spread the word about what really helps. Say ” I’m sorry and I love you.” Assign yourself a task instead of saying, “What can I do to help?” If you don’t cook, offer to shop or to drive to an appointment. Take your loved one to a movie. Go over and clean their house. Believe me, it will be appreciated.

  15. As a survivor of childhood cancer I have a few tips, although some apply specifically to people dealing with the diagnosis of a child:

    -Do not socially ostracize the person with cancer or the caregivers! As said, even if you say “I do not know what to say,” this is better than nothing! My father talks about how a man he worked with in the fire department acted as if my dad was invisible from the moment news spread in the firehouse of my diagnosis, simply because he did not know how to react. I had the same thing happen with many of my peers in school, or was treated as if I was contagious!

    -Some may need a friendly ear to vent to, some may need a helper to take over the little things like chores/cooking a meal/babysitting a child for a few hours/etc. Some may also want to just get out once and awhile and have a taste of normality, and this may be as little as sitting down in a coffee shop for a cup of joe for an hour or two, talking about the inconsequential things like sports or making some time to watch the most recent episode of a favorite show together. Different people will want different things, and it may not always be clear cut.

    -Parents/Guardians: Often the first to slip our minds when we are that stressed is the most important things.This is through no fault of our own and in my case it was telling the patient! I learned of my diagnosis when awake on the second or third night in the hospital without ever being told or knowing why I was there. When the shift change came in the middle of the night the doctor or nurse of the current shift walked around all rooms on that floor and explained the status of the occupants so the person relieving him would now what to look out for. As they came to my room and discussed my health with all relevant medical jargon. The next morning I was taken to see a child psychologist and proceeded to grill her on what everything meant. I feel so bad looking back on it, nobody should be put in the place that poor woman was when a six year old sat down in front of her and asked “What is leukemia? What is anemia? What is a porto-cath? What is chemotherapy? What is…” This went on for the entire one hour appointment and into the next, which she had intended to use for organization and paperwork but postponed because of the situation.

    -If you know the person well enough to know their certain creature comforts they enjoyed previously and it is not to difficult, bring it by to them (assuming it is not prohibited by their care plan). People often brought my parents coffees and Diet Coke when they stopped in to visit because they were often unavailable at the odd hours my parents found themselves awake with me while we were in the hospital those first few weeks. Because I was in desperate need of distraction people brought art supplies and hand me down books, or would think up riddles before coming to visit and would banter back and forth with me while my parents got to take a break from the tiny room we were in.

  16. What gets me is how people always ask what kind of cancer it is, and then you can see them go through mental gymnastics to convince themselves that they are “safe” from that kind. It totally unnerves them when you explain that yes, you have colon cancer, but no, you eat a very healthy diet and had only last year had a colonoscopy that was A-OK.

  17. Excellent description of…well everything. I heard the words you have cancer on 10-29-08 at 10:46am, 37 years old, with a 4 and 7 year old at home. Its now 3 years later, I still deal with pain, “is it back” symptoms, lost friendships…and just the change it brings to every aspect of your life. It changed me into a whole different person. So much so that I fell as if I live a different life. A better one, because I really live for me now. before I was mom, wife and working. now I am me first, everyone else second. if there is one thing I can relate to on your list of things to say is to not pretend, or ignore the person. I had a really good friend that I talked to daily. After 8 months of treatment, finding I needed more she stopped talking to me. It hurt very much. Our kids stopped playing together and I was left with alot of hurt and unanswered questions…why/how could this person do this to me. I would rather her just say” I dont know what to say, but I love you”..instead of leaving my life…..cancer well Im not who I was, but I am better and in some ways happier with the “new” me…

  18. Thank you! Even when I speak with other cancer survivors, or those currently fighting, the conversation is often difficult. There isn’t an easy way to do it, but I am generally glad when people talk to me about my cancer.

  19. You posted this the day of my mother’s 2nd biopsy & the day before her first chemo. Strange timing and a surreal couple of days.

  20. I think its great for people to have something like this list to rely on to help them! However, I just wanted to add that it was actually the stories of survival (like aunt Gina stories) that helped me believe that there was hope and that I too, could conquer cancer. Great suggestions all in all, thanks for posting this.

  21. Timely
    I was just diagnosed, and am experiencing a roller coaster of emotions.
    Thanks for posting this

  22. strange that i came to this after reading the acorn squash recipe because my friend just found out that she had tumors last week and i havent spoken to her yet because i just dont know what to say. thanks for the insight.

  23. I love this…. especially #3 about the “links” and offering info on treatments. Having had a really bad case of lymphoma as a young adult and a trained nurse, I was overloaded with well meaning friends doing just that. The worst and most annoying thing were friends telling me about alternative “treatments” they knew would “work” better than what I was doing (chemo) when they really had no clue what they were talking about.

  24. Great post. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 39 in 2006 an old friend sent me a card that said, “You sure know how to party.” I still laugh thinking about it. She knows my sense of humor, she hit it on the head for me.

    Also agree that saying you don’t know what to say is better than saying nothing at all. Actually, isn’t that what Hallmark is for? Even a simple “thinking of you” card from the pharmacy is better than nothing. It’s about keeping the energy flowing to that person. Greeting cards may seem ancient these days but I loved getting something I could touch and feel, that was held by a friend or family member and brought to my door.

  25. This is incredibly helpful – put very clearly and in a constructive way. It is so hard for people around us to know what to say and so this sensible guidance helps to put across what is welcome and what is not, as well as why.

    Thank you.
    Philippa (aka Feisty Blue Gecko)

  26. I just got finished assisting my brother and his family through his battle with cancer that included high dose chemo. I only did what they asked from me. My brother is still on his journey but they said I was a big help. All I did was just listen and try to honor his choices no matter what they were. We supported his strength and it came full circle for him. This is the same way we got through my mother’s battle. It is such a defining moment in their lives and we can only do so much for them.They appreciated my research. Perhaps 50+ faxes is too much but it’s ok to share the benefits of acupuncture et all.
    Good luck to your friend in their own journey toward wellness!

  27. THANK YOU! I have often thought of writing this exact post and now you have said it so eloquently for me. I look forward to sharing with my Facebook Community on A Fresh Chapter so that hopefully one less newly diagnosed person has to console other people in his/her life. Love your work and will send big positive vibes out there for your friend.