How to talk to a person going through a cancer journey

How to talk to a person going through a cancer journey

I have two simple tips: 

  1. Talk to the person like you would talk to anyone else. 
  2. Don’t make assumptions. 

Below are some things you might want to say, and my ideas for alternatives. 

“When I had cancer I did X, Y, and Z!” 

Stop. I might not want your advice. I might not be ready for your advice. Your advice might not be right for me. I might need to ask you questions at some point though, so let me control the information I receive. 

Try this: “I also went through a cancer journey. Let me know if you want to talk about anything with me when you’re ready.”

“Let me know if you need anything.” 

Yeah, so I’m not going to ask you to watch my kid, clean my house, or make me cookies. Instead, offer something concrete that you know you can do: “I will make dinner Wednesday if that day works. Do you like lasagna or chicken soup?” Or, if I have a little kid or kids offer this: “We’re going to the zoo Saturday. Does your child want to come? Then you can have a break.”

“It’s like you’re getting a boob job!” 

No. Nope. It’s really not. It’s not at all. I didn’t ask for this. Also, maybe I don’t want you to talk about my boobs. And also, maybe I’m deciding to stay flat and don’t care to have reconstruction. 

Try this: “Wow, a mastectomy sounds rough. I’m sorry you’re going through that.” 

“Well, at least you can get a cute wig.”

Right, sure there are some nice-looking wigs. But we’ve all seen ugly wigs too. And again, I didn’t ask for a new hairdo. I was fine with my hair before it started falling out and don’t want to have to wear a wig. Maybe I will choose to NOT wear a wig.

So how about saying: “I’m sorry you’re losing your hair. That probably isn’t fun.” And if you have to know, maybe you can ask something like, “Do you know what you plan to do if/when you start losing your hair?”

Of course, all of the above things were said to me and my responses and reactions were based on my experience and journey. Everyone experiencing cancer is different. If you know the person well, you might know that you can make jokes, or offer a hug, or know they are ready for all the information. 

Getting a cancer diagnosis is a lot to handle. There are many things to think about and life adjustments to make. The best advice I can give is to listen to what your friend or loved one is telling you. Let them control their experience. But als let them know you are available.

About the Author:

Kelly Klehm is a breast cancer survivor who uses writing as a tool to share her experiences. She will be joining us monthly to share her journey with us. You can find more of her writing on Forge’s blog.

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