Everyone's needs are different.
There's no one tried and true list of things to say and not to say that can work for everyone.
One site suggested that you ask permission before offering advice or bringing over a casserole; another said to just show up on the front door and put it in the freezer. Tell them how good they look. Don't tell them how good they look. Tell them about the positive outcomes you've had experiences with. Don't tell them about your positive experiences, even if you have an aunt who beat breast cancer. Tell them you think it sucks that they have cancer. Don't talk about the cancer at all, just talk about normal things like the game last night and the good ol days and Netflix. Don't say anything if you can't think of something helpful to say, you don't want to be offensive. Always say something, even if you aren't sure what to say- you don't want them to feel deserted. Ask how they are feeling, but don't ask how they are doing.
Well then WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO when someone who we know is hurting?!?
First things first, we need to realize that everyone is going to process and deal with their crisis differently.
Take me and John for example. I've mentioned before that we process news very very differently- John feels the entire sum of his emotions immediately and with great force, but within a day or two, he finds a place of acceptance. I tend to ignore the depth and breadth of emotions for a while to take care of the immediate fallout and then slowly decline into sadness starting about 3 days later and slowly continuing for up to a couple weeks.
CLEARLY two such different people are going to need two different approaches of support and care. John is 100% extrovert, so he immediately calls people and asks them to come over. I'm about 50% extrovert, so I put off the mass communications with people for about 24 hours or more, and then I start to want people around in a couple of days. In fact, I went to work the day after the appointment when we found out my cancer had grown because I was still in denial and hadn't contacted some of my closest people yet- that's the denial. Many others become angry in a crisis, while others still stay in a place of denial as a defense mechanism.
I will admit that at times I have felt many of these conflicting emotions at once. I want people to pray for me, but I don't want them to pray over me, but I don't want them to NOT pray, but I don't want them to forget that I'm hurting, so I want them to pray over me. I don't want people all up in my house all the time, but I'm lonely and I want a friend to come over, but I don't want the conversation to get too heavy, so let's invite several friends, but I don't want the conversation to be too light because I'm still sad and hurting, so maybe no one should come over, except I still need someone to come over. I don't want people to treat me any differently because I have cancer, but there's no way I'm walking up 2 flights of stairs, so definitely I'm taking the elevator and can you please hold that elevator for me because I have cancer, and I'm really hungry and ready for lunch so let's speed this up and get seated because I have cancer, but don't look at me with the sympathy face because I have cancer, because I don't want to be treated any differently just because I have cancer, but you forgot the butter so hurry up and bring it back so I can eat it because I have cancer and I need some butter.
Despite all these differences, there are some recurring suggestions that I uncovered from my extensive (15 minutes) of research (googling) that I think can be helpful for anyone who is hurting.
If the person who is hurting is someone you are close to...
simply start by asking them "Do you want to talk or do you want some space?" or "I'd love to talk when you're ready." This can give you an idea of how you can begin to support them without making assumptions about what they need. You may even add "Are you okay with questions?" if you have some things you want to know specifics about. Continue to check in in the weeks and months following their initial news. Support tends to be abundant at the beginning and then tapers out over time. Keep calling, keep texting, keep sending cards. In a friendly kind of way, not a "you're sick or hurting and I'm going to take care of you like a wounded duckling" kind of way.
Things you might automatically say, and an alternative to try instead
This communicates the same sentiment of positivity and care that is intended in the first greeting without creating a need for a response. If someone is hurting, you don't want to remind them of the weight of their hurt, let them experience that on their own terms.
We typically ask this question when wanting to know how someone is really doing, and usually follows sometime after the how are you greeting. It can be difficult to choose one word that summarizes the wide range of emotions that people feel when they're hurting; asking about a specific something narrows down the scope of what your friend has to consider before responding. You may also consider asking "how is your body feeling?" if you want a more open-ended answer to questions about symptoms or side effects.
Offer something specific that you are gifted for at a time when you are available. Take as much of the decision-making burden off of your friend as possible without being too bossy.
So if you know you are a person who wears their deep sympathy on their face, then it would be better for you to walk up to your friend, give a loving squeeze on the arm, and keep walking.
Many people would suggest to always offer some words of support, that saying nothing is not supportive. I agree that you should try to say something supportive, just not something overly sympathetic. This particular interaction is guaranteed to bring me down, and I would assume the same is true for many others as well. So if you can say something supportive, then please do. If your face starts to get too sympathetic, then say nothing (with the exception of close family and friends).
These don't bother me much because it reminds me that God's strength is in me and making me strong and brave and courageous. Most cancer patients are bombarded with warrior verbiage- we "fight" our disease and "win/lose our battle" and are called "warriors." This implies that strength is expected, and that bad days are a sign of weakness. (source) Offering a compliment of grace is equally as powerful.
(What?!? Brittany!!! You just said to say nothing!! You big fat hypocrite!) I know, I know. Total hypocrite. Many of us choose in moments of crisis for the people in our lives to not say anything to them at all because we don't know what to say or don't want to be overwhelming. I would encourage you in these moments to find a way to show your support, even if it is small.
Now, after having said all of this, I will admit that most of these don't bother me tremendously (except the sympathy face), and I would never roll my eyes or snarl at you behind your back if you said any of these things to me. You care tremendously, and I love that! I need that! This is also not a back-handed secret outcry for movie tickets or attention or compliments.
You have so many resources and abilities that you have offered me in this time of great need, and this is something small that I can offer to you in return- more tools in your tool belt to use when you encounter bumps along your road.
Dealing with hurt is hard. It's so hard. And you've just read all this mess because you are AWESOME and you care about someone that you want to support and encourage while they are hurting. Way to go, you! Keep going strong!