How To Communicate With A Friend During A Cancer Diagnosis

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By Cancer Hope Network Volunteer and Brain Cancer Survivor, Jeffrey Henigson

One of the questions I’m often asked by family members and close friends of someone diagnosed with cancer is how to talk—supportively—with loved ones who are facing the disease. They want to help but they’re unsure what to say. Some fret about upsetting the people they’re trying to help. Some wonder if they should say anything at all.

I always start by telling them about Cancer Hope Network, and why it is so empowering to connect someone going through a diagnosis with survivors who faced, and overcame, the same challenges. I then share with them what was most helpful—and least helpful—in the conversations I had while in treatment.

If there is a golden rule for those seeking to be supportive, I’d say it is to listen. Doing this well requires creating time and space for someone to talk to you. You create that space by being present, by deliberately stepping out of your environment and joining them in theirs. You also let go of your assumptions about what they’re experiencing and instead let them share it with you.

Understanding how fundamental listening is can actually be liberating. I shared the golden rule with a friend whose husband was diagnosed several months ago with prostate cancer. “Getting the news was awful, but initially I was also really scared I wouldn’t have the right thing to say. It took me awhile to understand how much he appreciates just being able to get stuff off his chest.”

People going through a diagnosis have plenty to get off their chests. Many fear not knowing what’s ahead, or losing control, or the impact cancer treatment is going to have on how others see them. Some are angry at a doctor or an unsympathetic boss. Others are concerned about friends who seem to feel uncomfortable around them. Whatever is affecting them, your job is not to solve their problems, but to provide them with a comfortable, judgment-free space where they can get their feelings out.
“But how can I do that?” you might be asking. While patients’ needs are different, here are some ways to increase the likelihood that you will be supportive.

Let the patient know you’re available to chat. Amy, a breast cancer survivor, told me about a friend’s offer of support, which was made in a sympathy card. “You’ve probably got tons of people to talk to, but if you want to vent anytime about anything (or hang out without us mentioning the C word once!), you’re welcome to call me.”

Amy took her friend up on her offer. I asked why. “Because everybody else was trying to reassure me or give me advice or tell me about the latest cancer diet and this friend was basically asking what I needed.” They ended up meeting for coffee once a week, with Amy rarely talking about cancer, but still feeling supported.

Create space for the conversation. You might be visiting your friend in a hospital, or stopping by their house, or going for a walk. Wherever you meet, it’s important for you to make the space feel open for a conversation to occur. Meeting in a cafe? Grab that table back in the corner where you can speak privately. Have a cell phone? Turn it off. Nothing’s worse for someone sharing something difficult than a phone going off and your saying, “Sorry, just a second while I get this.”

In the same way you turn off your phone, try to turn off the things in your life. Don’t try to match, “Chemo is absolutely wiping me out,” with “Yeah, I’m exhausted, too. My boss kept me in the office late last night.” Part of creating a space for a conversation is taking your life and all its worries out of it.
Listen more, speak less. If you’re new to this, it might be hard at first, because of the tendency to think you have to do something. Guess what? Listening is doing something, and it’s incredibly powerful. You don’t need to share a story about someone you know who survived cancer, or say everything is going to be fine, or communicate your sympathy by saying “That’s terrible!” when you hear about the diagnosis. Just be present. You’re doing something tremendously important by simply being there.

Respect the patient’s privacy. Cancer is a very personal, very private experience. Treat whatever your friend says as if you were sworn to secrecy, and let them know that. If someone else asks you about the person you’re supporting, tell them you made a commitment to maintain their privacy.

I hope this helps you help the person you care about. Let me take this opportunity to thank you for making the effort!