It’s important to choose your words carefully when speaking to someone with a new cancer diagnosis. Though you probably mean well, it's a very complex change in a child and families life. If you want to support the child and families’ journey towards a new normal here are some helpful tips of what not to say and what to say. In fact, sometimes gestures speak louder than words. For instance, sending flowers or a card may be most appropriate until the initial shock wears off.
Every cancer patient has a unique journey ahead of them, each course of treatment is tailored exactly to their bodies specific cells. So what now? Well. But to avoid putting your foot in your mouth, please don’t utter these next 10 phrases.
1. "You are strong and will get through this."
This message can push expectations that you need to be “tough” to survive. A new diagnosis brings out all types of feelings; including guilt. Instead, try validating the family’s feelings through giving space for them to understand and express their own emotions. A great example would be: ‘How unfair. You must be so angry’ The way this was phrased allows r someone to let out pent up emotions.
2. "How are you feeling?"
This might surprise you, since you may feel that this sort of phrase shows that you care. However, "So many people ask patients that; It gets really old and annoying after a while," Also, keep in mind that the person probably doesn't feel so great, and asking this question only reminds him or her of that.
3. "Can I do anything to help you?"
This is so generalized, and as a result, the family will likely say no. They are coping with a minute to minute situation; and most likely beyond overwhelmed to think of a way you can help. Instead, suggest doing something specific you are committed to following through on- such as: if you bake offer to make a meal or even arrange a month of meals with fellow friends in the community. Assisting with ongoing basic needs is such a huge support!
4. "How serious is the cancer?"
Don't ask detailed questions about the diagnosis or treatment plan. If the family wishes to share information listen at their pace. Cancer treatment plans can rapidly change and many patients and families find repeating the same information over and over taxing. Try asking if there is social media or caring site you can follow.
5. "My grandmother/mom/sister/aunt/friend had cancer..."
The patient's situation may remind you of someone else, but telling a story about a family member or friend who has or had cancer is simply irrelevant—and it's especially a bad idea if it's a fatal story. As much as you may think you can relate, your stories are not going to change the patient’s diagnosis or prognosis, just don’t go there!
6. "I read an article in the newspaper that said you should..."
Please don't play doctor—the patient already has several members on their care team. "If someone wants information, he or she will ask for it." The patient is likely already being inundated with information and advice from a medical team, so your two cents about an article from a newspaper, magazine or isn't necessary.
7. "Your hair looks good like that."
Anything that calls attention to hair, loss of hair or a lack thereof; is just feeding into any negative emotions associated with the unwanted side-effects. This was not a planned or wanted change that can easily be changed.
8. "God doesn't give you more than you can handle."
This phrase is commonly tossed around in hospitals and all over Facebook newsfeed. If you're religious, this might be something that comforts you; but if the patient is struggling with faith or not religious, this phrase is not going to make him or her feel any better. In fact, it's going to make the person feel uncomfortable.
9. "I know how you feel."
The truth is, you never really do. If you've been through a similar cancer experience, you may have an understanding, but unless you are going through this patient and family’s identical experience; you have no idea what that person's experience is like. Instead try to stay focused on the patient's current needs and concerns.
10. "You must have done something to get it."
Believe it or not, this is said quite a bit. People want to assume there is a connection, as humans we want to find answers that can help something awful make sense. Don't even begin to bring up the potential cause of the cancer, because that unfairly assigns blame to the patient.
Above all, being patient, and letting the family reach out to you; can be most helpful. If you’re still stuck on words send flowers, or a surprise to bring a smile!