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How NOT to Act Around Someone Who Has Cancer


When a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness, friends and family are often unsure of what to say and how to act. You may wish to express sympathy and support but can't find the right words, or feel unsure about how you can best assist your loved one during this struggle. Unfortunately, this uncertainty often leads to hurtful comments and thoughtless remarks. As Elizabeth Bernstein reported in the Wall Street Journal:

cancer diagnosis

When you first find out a friend or loved one has cancer, don't pry. Wait for them to disclose the details if and when they feel ready.

"When Lori Hope was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002, she says many people asked her if she had been a smoker. Some told her of people they knew who had died of cancer. One friend asked why she was going on vacation since she would probably worry the whole time."

As shocking as it may seem, this kind of experience is not uncommon. Well-meaning friends will often make hurtful blunders around someone who's seriously ill. As Hope says, "People tend to rush in without thinking."

No Easy Answers

When your friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer or another serious illness, she or he will understandably feel overwhelmed or devastated. How, then, should family and friends support them in this overwhelming, stressful time?

As Bernstein asserts, "There isn't anything correct to say to someone reeling from the shock of a cancer diagnosis." Still, "some ways of showing support are better than others. And while there's no right approach, there may indeed be wrong things to say or do."

What NOT to Say

Lori's example is a perfect illustration of what NOT to say. Avoid insensitive, thoughtless, presumptuous, and negative comments. The most basic thing to remember is to be sensitive -- and think before you speak! But even the most thoughtful friend can unintentionally say something inappropriate. Here are some specific things to avoid saying:

  • Asking inappropriate questions:
    According to Bernstein, "Well-meaning friends and family members often ask inappropriate questions, such as the patient's prognosis." Allow your loved one to share information when he feels ready, rather than pressing him for information.

  • Offering unsolicited advice:
    As Bernstein points out, another common faux pas friends and family members make is to "offer theories on why their loved one got sick" or "give unsolicited advice." Don't presume to know more about your loved one's illness than she does, and only give advice when you are asked.

  • Focusing too much on the illness:
    According to Bernstein, "It's critical not to treat your friend just as a patient. So remember to ask about other aspects of her life, such as her children. Ask her permission before you share news of her illness with others. Don't recommend books or treatments without first inquiring if she'd like to hear about them."

  • Playing Pollyanna:
    Another typical slip-up Bernstein mentions is the tendency to "insist that 'everything is going to be just fine.'" While it may seem like being optimistic is a good thing, it's possible to overdo it. If your loved one feels pressured to be positive, it may feel like you're dismissing his experience and emotions. Make sure to acknowledge what he is going through.

  • Nothing at all:
    In fact, the worst mistake is not to say or do anything. According to Marisa Weiss, oncologist and founder of, in the Wall Street Journal, "Loved ones don't know what to do, and they don't want to make a terrible error … This fear keeps people from doing anything." And, as Bernstein reports, experts say "that's the worst mistake you can make."

What TO Say

So, what should you say? How can you best support your friend or family member who is dealing with serious illness? From the outset, follow these three essential steps:

  1. First, admit you don't know what to say, and apologize:
    In response to the insensitive reactions she experienced, Lori Hope wrote a book, Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know. According to Hope, as Bernstein reports, the first thing to do is to "admit you don't know what to say." It's simple enough, yet it makes a huge difference. After admitting you're unsure of what to say, says Hope, you should "apologize in advance for doing or saying anything upsetting."

  2. Next, offer your support:
    As Hope advises, "Be sure to tell your friend you will be there for her." Without friendship, illness is tough to deal with -- so make sure to let your loved one know that she can count on you to be supportive.

  3. Then, be flexible, adapting to what your loved one needs:
    As Bernstein explains, "Not every cancer patient wants the same type of support. Some want to talk about their illness and accept help willingly. Others struggle to preserve their independence and behave, at least outwardly, as if nothing is wrong."

Thus, experts say that "you should take your lead from the person who is sick. If she wants to talk about her illness, then listen. Don't be afraid of emotions." According to Dr. Weiss, "Being there, listening and being supportive is a powerful role … If the person feels comfortable crying in front of you, be honored, because you fulfilled a really important need."

If your loved one doesn't respond to your offers of support and assistance, don't get discouraged or take it personally. As Berstein explains, she or he "may not have the energy or time to call you back. Stay in touch anyway."

Ultimately, the key is helpfulness plus empathy.

"You should be there for your friends," says Howard Leventhal, professor of psychology at Rutgers University and director of the Center for the Study of Health Beliefs and Behavior, as Bernstein reports. "And being there doesn't require much more than enduring their pain and trying to be useful."

How You can be Most Helpful

According to Dr. Jacqueline Olds, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, "It's the relationships where people are really useful to each other that do get sustained, that deepen and that therefore fulfill people's needs for long-term intimacy." And doing an act of kindness without expecting anything in return is what friendship is all about.

  • Offer to help in any way necessary:
    Don't just assume that you understand your loved one's needs. Express that you are there to help, and let him tell you what is most needed. If your loved one doesn't respond to your general offer with any requests for help, then start making specific offers, like running errands or cooking dinners.

  • But don't be pushy:
    As Bernstein explains, "Accepting help can be frightening for people accustomed to being independent." Over time, your loved one may feel more comfortable asking you for help. So it's important to be flexible, and to show that you will continue to be there for your loved one to help in whatever ways are needed.

  • Don't make the mistake of thinking of your friendship as one-sided:
    Don't just see yourself as the giver and your loved one as the receiver. Instead, remember the ways that the friendship supports and nourishes you. As Dr. Peter S. Reznik explains, "The mirror principle is true for any relationship, particularly for close ones." You and your loved one are engaged in a mutual experience of learning and sharing, so treasure the life lessons and joy your friendship gives you.

Empathy: Are You Showing It?

Empathy is the ability to put yourself into someone else's shoes -- to understand them, to feel their pain, to take on their concerns, worries and regrets, as well as their joys, their elations and their excitement. Empathy takes practice -- you have to make an active effort to try to understand where your loved one is coming from. But it's worth the effort, as your loved one will feel comforted when her experience is validated and understood.

Being empathetic toward your loved one means that you are able to express compassion and to actively try to see and understand things from your loved one's perspective and experience. If you want to improve your ability to show empathy, try these helpful tips:

  • Be a good listener: listen carefully, and ask follow-up questions to show you care (and that you were paying attention!).

  • Try to imagine how you would feel if you were experiencing your loved one's struggle.

  • Try to be understanding of her/his moods, opinions and beliefs.

  • Strive to show compassion as much as possible, to friends as well as strangers. As you practice becoming a more compassionate person, your ability to be compassionate toward your loved one will greatly improve.

hug cancer patients

A simple hug can go a long way toward making your loved one feel better.

Your Friendship Actually Promotes Healing

Studies show that friendship promotes both emotional and physical health. In fact, positive emotions and reduction of stress support the immune system, which may contribute to slowing the progress of cancer and other illnesses.

  • Emotional health benefits physical health:
    Research has found that support from a loved one can have a healing effect. "Scientists are increasingly interested in the possibility that positive emotions can be good for your health," said Dr. Charmaine Griffiths, spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation.

    According to Allan Luks, former executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of Health and author of the book The Healing Power of Doing Good, a "feeling of well-being is critically important" for a person's physical health. In fact, Luks continues, "Studies have documented the fact that raising a person's perceived health status leads to reductions in stress that can create actual health improvements."

    According to Dr. David Spiegel, a Stanford University psychiatrist, women with advanced breast cancer even live twice as long when they join a support group. And other research shows that having close friends helps keep your immune system strong during times of stress.

  • Strive to bring joy into your loved one's life:
    Psychologist Sandra Levy has found that joyfulness "was the second most important predictor of survival time for a group of women with recurring breast cancer." As Dr. Reznik says, friendships are key to our quality of life, and should be a source of joy, learning, and fulfillment.

  • Give hugs:
    Hugs promote emotional well-being, as touch releases two feel-good brain chemicals, serotonin and dopamine. Hugs also promote physical well-being: According to Dr. Griffiths, research shows that "a hug from a loved one, can have beneficial effects on heart health." Studies also show that hugs help to reduce stress and pain.

Looking for More Valuable Resources?

Take advantage of the many resources available for friends and family of those struggling with serious illness. For more information on how to be supportive, log on to these helpful websites:

Or try a book, such as these recommended by Bernstein:

So, if you're at a loss for words, don't feel helpless -- there are plenty of things you can say and do to better support your loved one.

Recommended Reading

The Amazing Power of Empathy in Improving Your Life and Theirs

The Serious Health Risks of Loneliness & The Healing Power of Friendship


Wall Street Journal 03/31/08: How to Support a Loved One Reeling From Cancer Diagnosis

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