Lori Hope is an author, producer and public speaker with more than 25 years experience as a communications professional. A former newspaper reporter and editor-in-chief and award-winning journalist who developed hundreds of medical reports. She shared her own personal experience on our on-line radio show as a lung cancer survivor based on her new book: Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know.
Together with Sheryl Kraft, writer, women’s health blogger and breast cancer survivor, we revealed the doubts and challenges associated with helping a friend with cancer from a survivor’s viewpoint.
Our conversation revealed the collective wisdom and subtle secrets you don’t find in everyday conversations…. and, as follow up, I wanted to post some resources for you all.
This was already featured at Your Total Health, a service of NBC and iVillage
What NOT to say to your friend with cancer
- “You poor thing, I feel so sorry for you.” People with cancer need compassion, not pity. Pity implies hierarchy, while compassion puts you on the same level.
- “What’s your prognosis?” Prognosis is a medical term and it makes most people with cancer think about how long they might survive. Even if they’re positive thinkers, they may not want to think about how long doctors indicate they’re going to live.
- “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” This might seem like a helpful statement. But according to my research, that statement is one of the least helpful. When people have cancer they may feel so overwhelmed that they can’t focus on what they need. Offer something specific — run an errand, give a foot rub, weed their garden.
- “My aunt [or anyone] died of breast cancer.” Tell positive stories, never scary stories, about other people who have had cancer. More than anything, people with cancer need hope, and horror stories dash hope.
- “At least they caught it early [or “at least” anything].” Your friend needs to know you’re acknowledging his pain and taking it seriously. If you say, “At least you don’t have to go through chemo…” or something similar, you minimize what he’s going through. He may discover what’s good about his situation himself, but doesn’t want to hear it from you.
What TO say to your friend with cancer
- “I’m so sorry this is happening. It could happen to any of us. Life is so unfair sometimes.” This takes away any possible blame or shame, and puts you on the same level.
- “I don’t know what to say, and I’m sorry if I say something wrong. Just know how much I care about you.” This defuses tension for both of you, and enables you to communicate what really matters: that you care. Whatever you do, don’t stay away from your friend because you’re uncomfortable.
- “I am here for you, anytime, anywhere.” More than anything, people with cancer need to know you’re there for them. But beware: don’t say this unless you can honor the commitment! People with cancer may be more vulnerable, and what used to irritate like a scratch may sting intensely.
- “I’m here to listen but if you don’t feel like talking, I understand.” This statement gives control to your friend, shows your concern, and keeps the door of communication open.
- Nothing. Nada. Zip. As the Dalai Lama says, “Sometimes silence is the best answer.” What’s most important is that you listen well, without judging or offering advice.
Lori also tells me that Time Magazine has a great article for you to look at: “How to talk to a friend with cancer”