cancer conversation
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What To Say To Someone With Cancer

Posted on May 2, 2017 by Henry Ford Health Staff

Cancer can be a tricky subject to navigate. For friends and loved ones, it can feel like you just don’t know what to say when you learn that someone in your life has gotten a cancer diagnosis or is going through treatment. For those with cancer, it can be frustrating to feel like everyone is handling you with extreme care and not treating you like the same person you were – and still are.

Cynthia Ulreich, a nurse practitioner specializing in cancer care at Henry Ford Health, knows that communication during this time can be awkward for everyone involved.

“Because people have an overwhelming amount of sympathy toward each other, they just don’t know what to say to make the situation better,” she says. “They don’t know exactly what the person with cancer is going through, and they don’t want to say the wrong thing.”

This mentality is frustrating for cancer patients who just want some normalcy in their currently tumultuous life. So how can friends and family make the best of these situations? By being honest, Ulreich says.

“Just be honest with them. Say, ‘I want to help you and be here for you, but I don’t know what to say. What can I do?’” she says. “That way, the patient can express what they’re looking for. If they want to talk about their condition, talk about that. If they just want to talk about baseball, talk baseball.”

For friends and family, it can feel inconsiderate to talk about the things you do in your everyday life that patients might not get to do right now – working out, going out for dinner with friends or even making a trip to the grocery store might make patients feel nostalgic for life pre-cancer.

In her experience, Ulreich says patients would rather hear about what’s going on in the lives of their loved ones. They don’t want to be treated as a “sick person” any more than they already are.

What Not to Say

Each person’s experience, cancer diagnosis and treatment plan is unique – so stop comparing, Ulreich says.

“Don’t say, ‘When my mom had cancer …’ or ‘When I went through treatment …’ because it’s totally different from what the patient is going through,” she says. “I see many patients get upset by these comments because their condition and treatment is solely theirs, and hearing about a friend’s experience with lung cancer – while important in its own right – is not similar to the breast cancer they are currently battling.”

If you feel you’ve offended someone, be straightforward in your apology to your loved one. Let them know you didn’t mean to hurt their feelings and that you are there to support them in whatever they need.

Don’t Take It Personally

Cancer is a difficult battle to fight, and comes with its own stages of emotional processing. If you feel you can’t get through to your loved one, don’t take it personally.

“It’s tough getting diagnosed with cancer and going through treatment,” Ulreich says. “Patients miss their healthy lives, they may be embarrassed by how their body is responding to chemotherapy or radiation, or they’re just feeling like, ‘why me?’ If they lash out, know that the bad days will pass.”

Whether you are going through cancer treatment or serve a loved one as a caregiver, there are resources to help you. Visit to learn more.

Check out some of our other Henry Ford LiveWell blog articles on coping with cancer, like advice on getting better sleep while undergoing treatment, tips for cancer caregivers, how to create a cancer care package, and more.

Cynthia Ulreich is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner who works with cancer patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Categories : FeelWell

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