Talking with Someone with Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

SEPTEMBER 07, 2017

Since you are reading this, the odds are good that you have had or are now contending with cancer. That means that you could probably write this particular essay and certainly have some stories about especially good or bad things that people have said. It is an unfortunate truth that some people will say something that is thoughtless or hurtful or just plain mean. Most often, I do believe it is without a malicious intent when someone stupidly says: "Oh, my cousin had lung cancer, and she died." or " I always worried that all the stress in your life would give you cancer." 

My best suggestion is to keep an actual list of the comments, either a paper one or an electronic version. Then, when someone makes the remark, instead of bursting into tears or lashing out in fury, you can think:" Oh, that is one for the list." It gives you a place to put it, a place that someday you may read with head-shaking and disbelief and a little humor. And here is what you can say in return: First, pause a moment, and then in a puzzled, not an angry, voice" "Why did you say that to me?" This immediately puts the burden of confusion back on the speaker and usually results in a mumbled apology.

In all fairness, it can be really hard on our families and friends to know when we want to obsess about cancer and when we want to ignore it. I remember my husband saying at dinner: "Can we talk about something besides cancer tonight?" I said: "No". And I fondly remember Bob who spent far too much time in the hospital for leukemia treatment. He had a simple and very effective system: When he wanted to discuss his illness and situation, he put on his Red Sox cap when I came into the room. When he wanted to talk about anything except cancer, he put on a Celtics cap. No words were needed.

I am thinking about this because of this essay by Heather Millar. You can refer people to it. Or you can just read it and agree and probably add other tips.

When You’re Talking to Someone With Cancer – 7 Tips 
By Heather Millar

I’m years past cancer treatment, so it doesn’t come up in conversations very often anymore. But sometimes, because it’s relevant for some reason or other, I just say, “I had breast cancer seven years ago.” 

People usually do a double-take after that. They get all concerned, and ask if I’m okay. Yes, I’m okay. Yes, it was tough, but I really don’t want to get into it. I just needed to give you that small bit of information for the sake of our conversation, but I’d really like to leave it at that. 

I know that the people in these situations mean well, I really do. But, I think I probably speak for most cancer patients when I say this: Sometimes (most of the time), we just want to be normal. 

When you’re talking to someone with cancer, or who’s had cancer, here are some things you can do (and not do) to help with that: 

• If we’re going through treatment, don’t ask us how we are every time you see us. You’re probably the umpteenth person to ask that day. If we want to talk about how we’re feeling, we’ll bring it up.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
View All Articles