One of the questions I get most frequently is how to encourage a cancer patient or caregiver. After all, when we see someone going through something so difficult, it’s natural to want to encourage them–but how? The monster they’re up against seems so immense!
“I Just Don’t Know What to Say.”
It’s difficult to know what to say when a friend or family member’s life is turned upside down cancer. After all, there is nothing you can you say that will change their diagnosis. But you can encourage your friend. What’s important isn’t what you say, but that you care enough to be there and listen.
In fact, “I don’t know what to say,” is the perfect way to let them know that you realize there are no easy answers. It lets them know that you care enough to be there for them through the hard place they are in. And, it’s certainly better than not calling or visiting out of fear or discomfort.
Examples of Helpful Things to Say:
“I’m sorry this has happened to you.” This means more that you may think. In fact, it’s the simplicity of it that helps. There are no expectations or pressures put on the patient. Instead, it simply acknowledges that the situation is terrible and that you care.
“What are you thinking of doing?” Then, don’t question the wisdom of their plan of action. Rather, support it. This shows respect for the patient and their decision-making process. Adding your own opinions would only cause the patient to second guess themselves and the decision they have put so much thought and research into making. Don’t give advice unless asked, and then, be reserved and careful.
“Is there any way that I can I help?” If there is something specific you would like to do, offer. Let them know that you would like to encourage them by doing this.
“I’m thinking about you.” This is especially appropriate in a card or email. Often people assume that the patient has a lot of support, so they don’t want to “bother” them. Unfortunately, many times other friends make the same assumption and the patient has no solid support system. Even if they do have plenty of support, your card will remind them that you, in particular, are thinking about them.
“If you ever feel like talking, I’ll be here to listen.” Even if the patient isn’t ready to talk in the beginning, saying this assures them that if they need a friend to talk to, they can count on you.
(If you are a praying person) “I am going to be praying for you.” Then, remember to actually pray. Better yet, pray for them right then and there, and continue to pray later.
Examples of Unhelpful Things to Say:
“I know just how you feel.” Everyone is different. Even if you have been in a similar situation, saying this demeans what the patient is going through.
“How long do you have?” First of all, Prognosis are wrong all the time. Asking this is validating the hopelessness of the situation, rather than allowing the patient to experience their own level of hope or lack of hope.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” “Think positive,” or “You just need to have faith.” While these phrases are often said to encourage the patient, they instead belittle the patient’s fears and feelings.
“Don’t worry.” Like the phrases above, this is often said to try to put a positive face on what is happening. This will likely make the patient feel very alone, since a person who say this has no understanding of what he/she is facing.
“I know just what you should do.” Again this undervalues the situation by implying it has an easy fix.
You can still be humorous and fun when appropriate and when needed. A light conversation or a funny story can make a friend’s day. Talk about common interests, hobbies, life events and other topics not related to cancer. People going through treatment sometimes need a break from the disease.
This doesn’t mean ignoring the elephant in the room. Be cheerful when you naturally would be, and allow for sadness when it’s appropriate. Your friend may need to talk to someone he/she trusts.
Some More Suggestions to Encourage a Friend Facing Cancer:
Most patients have a medical team as well as close family members participating in their decision-making process. Adding your two cents can be like the proverbial “too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Avoid bringing up behaviors (past or present) that might have contributed to his or her disease, such as smoking or drinking. They are fully aware of these things and often feel guilty about them already.
Even if they express a desire to give up, avoid the natural reaction, “You’ve got to just keep fighting.” This can make the patient feel guilty, and like you didn’t really hear them as they expressed their feelings.
Instead, at times like this, be supportive of your friend’s feelings. Allow them to be negative, withdrawn, or silent. Resist the urge to change the subject. Silence and holding their hand can be a greater comfort than words.
Telling them they are strong can cause them to act strong even when they are exhausted, so avoid this.
Instead of giving advice, ask advice. This helps him/her maintain an active role in your friendship. Just because your friend has cancer, doesn’t mean their need to help and be heard has gone away.
Before asking questions, ask if it’s welcome. They will likely be happy to answer, but they may wish to keep some things private.
Ask your friend if they are in any pain or discomfort. See if there is anything you can do to ease the discomfort by using pillows or moving furniture. Try to ensure that you are directly in front of your friend so that he/she doesn’t need to turn their head.
I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since my husband, Dan was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, despite their illness.
My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com