Tuesday, March 1, 2016

What to Say to Someone With Cancer By Someone Who Has Cancer

While we are still waiting to hear about when the trial will start from Miami, I thought I would take some time to offer some suggestions of conversation points that you can use with your friends who are hurting. Many of us just don't know what to say to our friends with cancer or who are grieving, so I've compiled a few options from helpful things that people have said to me and from some online resources.

What I've gleamed from the few minutes of research (googling) I did on this topic combined with the years of experience I have with hearing bad news, here is the number one thing I have determined that everyone should know about speaking with friends who have cancer or who are hurting:

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.

Many times after receiving difficult medical news, I dread going to church. I feel guilty saying that because church is where my people are and there is such support and encouragement there. Since I'm 50% introvert, I don't always do well in big groups of people to begin with, especially when there will be extra attention given to me for sad and dramatic reasons. So I summon up every bit of strength and courage I can find in me, I put not-my-jammies clothes on, and I go to church. I get such encouragement from seeing my friends and my people. But invariably each time, someone will come up to me and say something well-meaning with a super overly sympathetic look on their face. In that one instant, all the courage-summoning I had been doing all morning long has been shattered, and the joy I was beginning to feel from my friends is gone. You know I feel sad, I know I feel sad, I know you feel sad. No need for us all to experience it together in a public place.

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!


  1. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us. You are so right - so many people just don't know what to say or do and your insight is invaluable. Much love!!

    1. Thanks, LeeAnn! I think we are all looking for a way to be encouraging in our interactions with our friends. And you live in this type of interaction all the time! I'm sure you have several things you could add!!

  2. Love this Brittany! There are people who naturally know how to manage hard situations and easily travel from light to deep, happy to sad. I believe it is a gift. Thanks for this post for those of us that aren't gifted in this. 😊
    The "how ARE you" question is terrible! esp when accompanied by the deeply sympathetic face/posture!

    1. Yes, I agree! It's a learned skill to traverse hardship, I believe. And the sympathy face can be so natural sometimes, so its good to be aware of its unintended effects!

  3. Replies
    1. I was taking mental bets with myself on who would be the first with this comment. I should have known to pick you. Or Phil.

  4. Man, I felt like I was reading my own brain. All true and your approach is awesome. Having mastered the art of inducing a sympathetic head tilt, I too know it is by grace that we all continue. And girl, you are full of grace. I pray continued grace and peace for your family.

    1. Thanks, Kimberly! I'm sure you've had your fair share of the sympathy face as well! So encouraged by your experience11

  5. Thanks for the advice...I have a close friend whom I am trying to support and this gives me some new ideas. Praying for you!

  6. Thank you! Appreciate your gift!

  7. This is amazing. I don't know you, but a friend tagged me in a post where she shared this blog, and I sooo enjoyed reading this. My son has cancer and I also write a blog and want to help educate/inspire/inform people through our journey with cancer... and you had me laughing through this post at your wonderful humor (that I relate to.. that I think is actually good for people to see as well in your journey). You identified so many opposing views so very well and when you shared all the random thoughts with "because I have cancer" I was just rolling on the floor laughing. . well, I actually wasn't really on the floor because now that we're battling cancer we're more keenly aware of how nasty and germ-filled that floor really is. lol). You pointed out so many things that are sooo helpful. I only discovered my own head-tilted-sympathy look AFTER we began our cancer journey. It was an IMMEDIATE discovery to me and I was appalled at myself and all the situations I must have done that to people in my attempt to be sympathetic and show concern. I'm sure they had grace and just thought, "bless her heart. She has no idea how she looks." lol. Thank you again for sharing this. I'll be posting to my facebook page where I have a small following of people who are finding it to be of great value to have an inside glimpse of this journey through cancer. Praying for you now. :)

    1. Wow, Rhonda! I'm so glad we were connected! I have done THE VERY SYMPATHY FACE that I so despise to others as well! And, like you, its not until moments like these that I realize the importance of those brief interactions. It's so easy to be flippant and hurtful with our words, but taking a moment to make it an intentionally meaningful interaction can be so powerful! I am so thankful for your prayers and I will pray fGod to fill your family with his strength as you navigate this season of your lives. Glad you resonated with these sentiments :)