Someone I Know Has Cancer: What Should I Say?

February 28, 2024 ◊ By Elisa Everts ◊ |

Someone I Know Has Cancer: What Should I Say?

An elephant in the middle of a room

Oh, the Awkwardness
I get it. Cancer, like me, can be super awkward. 😆

I know what it's like trying to figure out what to say when someone you love has some kind of tragic adversity or an almost unspeakable pain in their life. And one of the things that complicates this problem is not knowing how the person feels about it themselves.

One Size Does Not Fit All; Taking Cues from My Blind Mother
The fact is there is no one way to talk to anybody about their pain or adversity. We all have our own preferences. I take my cues from my blind mother for this, however. I have met blind people who get very offended if you talk about their blindness outright. My mother does the opposite.

She tells jokes and funny stories about blindness. Thus, the elephant in the room becomes a comfortable dinner companion and everyone gets on swimmingly. People relax and stop worrying about putting their foot in their mouth. My mom will put it there for you. Or will put hers in her own, whatever.

My point is, by putting it out there, people know it's ok for them to talk about and they have a lot less anxiety in interacting with her.
As for myself, I try to make this easier for you by telling you EVERYTHING I feel all the time. You're welcome. I know that everyone does not, however, and that makes it tricky.

My mother's example may be more useful to the person facing cancer than to the would be comforters, but I think it's instructive. Most people will be relieved to be able to talk about it.

Is It Really Their Feelings We're Most Worried About?
In my observation, the person trying to decide what to say is generally much more reticent to address the subject outright than the person actually facing the adversity is. And if we are really honest, this often isn't really about the afflicted person's feelings as much as it is about our own discomfort.

And the person with cancer usually knows this intuitively and is hesitant to burden you by addressing the matter. This is messed up because it means that the person who is sick feels like she has to protect the feelings of the healthy interlocutor. And thus, while we are meant to be lightening their burden, we may be unconsciously adding to it.

The Role of Communication
Yes, there is always a chance you are going to miscalculate the other person's preferences because you can't read her mind and don't know how much she wants to talk about it. But many people facing a cancer diagnosis feel very isolated and alone because it seems like everyone around them is avoiding them due to their fear of the uncomfortable feelings that will arise if they engage.

We need to be brave and lay aside our own fear of discomfort in exchange for surrounding that person with loving support. One way to approach the situation is to say, "I was sorry to hear that you have cancer. How are you feeling about it? Is it something you would like to talk about or would you rather not?" Because the best way to find out what is in someone's mind is to ask them!

Be Brave, Be Gentle
Be brave. Be gentle. Raise the subject. Ask them about their preferences. "I understand that you've received a scary diagnosis. Is that something you're comfortable talking about?" That could be good place to start. Tread softly, but let love make you brave.

Next time I'll talk about what absolutely not to say to someone who has cancer or is facing grief.

By the way, if you are in this situation right now and you would like to talk about it, please email me. I would be happy to talk to you.

I trust that your love will overcome your fear of discomfort,

I send prayers for all the grace you need,

Elisa square portrait

About the author

Dr. Elisa Everts is the founder of Evertree Hope Management and is a dynamic public speaker, author and trainer. Dr Everts is passionate about helping cancer patients and bereaved people in their quest to survive and live a full life during and after cancer and grief. She has the personal experience of surviving Stage IV cancer and the loss of many loved ones. She understands the challenges inherent in these experiences and the importance of cultivating hope through the stories we tell others, and even more importantly, to ourselves.

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Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

I speak to medical professionals and patients, helping them provide hope when there seems to be none. If you or your organization need someone to help process the difficult topics of cancer and grief, let's set up a complimentary call, 703-656-6691,

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