”I’m sorry …”

“I know what it feels like …”

How do you talk to someone who has cancer? What is okay to say, and what will hurt them? When someone we care about is ill, it can be difficult to know what to say. We might start wondering if we’ve said the right thing, or whether we’ve said too much or too little. Of course, the last thing we want is to add to their stress.

Years ago I was on the receiving end of many awkward comments. (Fortunately, there were also many sentiments that touched me in positive ways, but I’ll be writing about those in another post). Now I have collected the three worst comments. Why? Hopefully they will help you, who are about to visit a sick friend, avoid the awkward moments.

 

What NOT to say, if you know someone who has cancer:

 

  1. I know what it feels like …

No you don’t! Unless you had or have cancer, you have no idea how someone with the illness feels. You can try to understand. You can listen. And you can try to put yourself in their shoes. But I knew the people who said this to me didn’t have a clue about how I felt.

 

  1. That’s normal. Don’t worry …

Normal? It may well be that a nurse thinks it’s normal when your eyelashes suddenly fall into your bowl of yoghurt in the morning because the chemo is causing your hair to fall out. Or that your urine smells of chemicals that are stronger than nail polish remover. But, in my world, it was absolutely not normal. And I did worry!

 

  1. One day you’ll be glad this happened.

I can still remember the day someone said this to me. Glad? For cancer? I couldn’t get it. The person was an adult, more than twice my age, and healthy. I was a bald 16-year-old, with no other prospect ahead than the next chemo treatment. What exactly was I supposed to be happy about?

People who say such things are only trying to help. We know that. But when you have cancer, you can’t cope with educating the people around you on top of everything else. That’s why I am offering these guidelines:

 

Basic rules when talking to a cancer patient

Basic Rule 1: You can’t say anything that will take the cancer away. So don’t try.

Basic Rule 2: Cancer is not a gift. Don’t try to give it a positive spin.

Basic Rule 3: Listen. Just listen.