On what to say to someone who has cancer or any other terrible or terminal illness

We are all shocked and upset when we hear the bad news of another person’s diagnosis. We want to express a whole bunch of difficult emotions, but there truly aren’t adequate words. Most of us are worried we will say the wrong thing, and the last thing we want to do is cause harm. Sometimes, because we’re upset, it takes a long time to be able to say anything at all. That’s okay. I am still getting first messages from people who heard my bad news two months ago. Your kind words will be appreciated whenever you find the courage, and your caring intentions will be clear, even if not expressed as elegantly as you might hope. And it’s not necessary to say a lot.

First of all, most of us want to say we are sorry, because indeed we are. Everyone wishes the circumstances were otherwise. I think expressing this is welcome by anyone who is afflicted with any degree of illness or misfortune. I know I have appreciated expressions of sorrow and regret that I am ill because they are sincere, shared feelings: they create connection. Make sure, however, that your note isn’t ultimately about you and your distress. Ways of expressing this that I think are fine, though others may disagree:

  • I’m so sorry to hear of your illness/diagnosis/misfortune.
  • I was so sad to hear about ….
  • I so wish that you were not facing this challenge!

And if it’s your style, it’s also fine (to me, at least) to simply say “WTF! This sucks!”

Most of us also wish we could do something to help and feel frustrated when there is so little we can do to alleviate another person’s suffering. You can offer your general or specific services, if you are actually available, in ways like this:

  • Please let me know if there is anything you need, now or any time in the future.
  • I am here to help with … if you need me! Please don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll check in again soon.
  • I would be so glad to help if I can. Just tell me what you need.

Do tell the person you are thinking of them, praying for them, keeping them in your thoughts, etc. Equally, sending love, hugs, strength, courage etc. is excellent. I have enormously appreciated such messages. Indeed, they have lifted and sustained me countless times over the past months, always giving me warm feelings of being loved. That can never be bad!

It is also fine to express hope that a person is not suffering too much, hope that they are comfortable, getting the care they need, and are well-surrounded by loved ones. But refrain from asking for details of a person’s suffering unless you are close to the person or engaged in a longer conversation or visit. Notably, two people who both dislike me and suffer from narcissism or sociopathy or something of the sort (I don’t have the official diagnosis—and no, not everyone who dislikes me has something like this wrong with them!), almost immediately asked such questions. One asked right away how long I had to live; the other asked if I was in a lot of pain. I’m pretty sure they were not actually concerned for my well-being!

Another way to think of this is to make sure that you are offering the person something, not asking them for something. Offering something can mean being willing to open up space for a conversation about those details in case the person has a need to tell more of their story, which is often the case. But don’t do this unless you are able to truly listen and hear the story with empathy. If you’re going to be uncomfortable with the hard parts, don’t offer. If you’re good with this sort of thing, simply let the person know you are there if they want to talk. Or you can ask a gentle, responsive question if they do share.

And the big don’t: don’t offer advice. Seriously, just don’t. We all understand that the impulse to offer advice or stories of cures comes from a place of caring: you want the ill person to get better, and you have an idea that might help. But the afflicted person will ask you for your advice if they want it. Trust them on that. It’s probably okay to make an offer of a referral if you know a specialist to recommend for a particular issue, but make sure you are simply letting them know you have this information if they would like it. We’re probably all aware that there are alternative as well as conventional treatment options, and we do all have access to this internet thing, after all. Chances are pretty slim that you are in a position to know more than the patient, who has likely already sought ample medical and other advice, about her condition and needs. And chances are the miracle cure that worked for one friend will not work for another. Cancer is incredibly variable, and every patient’s cancer is unique, even if it seems to be a similar type to another. One friend says she wanted to punch people in the face when they offered advice regarding her terminal diagnosis (which happily did end in a miracle cure!). This ban includes alternative therapies, diets, psychological advice, or spiritual approaches. For me, this includes the advice to not give up hope or keep fighting. Many cancer patients are well-served by maintaining a hope-based approach. But not all of us have that sort of prognosis. For some of us acceptance is a better route (more on that in a previous post). Check first. Make sure that hope isn’t about your own discomfort with death or goodbyes (more on that in an upcoming post, possibly).

In short, don’t be afraid to reach out, even with just the simplest expression of regret. Even an emoticon that might show how choked up you are can be fine. If you are sincere in your feelings and being yourself (as long as you’re not a narcissist or sociopath!), chances are you will say something that will be deeply appreciated. And if you mess up, which is unlikely, chances are your good intentions will still be apparent and you will be forgiven. We have all had this struggle, and most of us don’t know what the right thing to say is until we have been on the other side. Even then, what might be right for me might not be right for someone else. But I hope these guidelines help a little.

Also, if you’re unsure of a person’s current health status but want to see them or invite them to some event, go ahead and say so. They will let you know if they are unable to see you or attend. It’s nice to get the invitation in any case! I’m not dead yet, so I’m happy to be included in celebrations and fun times when possible. I understand many people are uncomfortable with the terminally ill, cancer, and dying in general, so inviting someone in that state might seem like a downer. But many people in this situation have a good sense of humour about it, often we’re still physically well enough to go out, and some of us are quite cheerful when our symptoms are under control!

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11 thoughts on “On what to say to someone who has cancer or any other terrible or terminal illness

  1. Well said, Susan. You lovingly make it clear how important support is and what kind of support you need. Most of us are so goddamn awkward when it comes to expressing our pain and fear, and reacting to the bad news of others. Your clarity helps. Basically you are reminding us to stay balanced and present, and focused on the needs of the person before us.

    Nicely written – thank you for this. And thank you for ALL the exquisite and thoughtful consciousness you are sharing with us about your illness and about dying. There is such beauty in your perspective and in your surrrender to life and death.

    And by the way – WTF? It really does suck…..

    Love, Betsy

    Liked by 3 people

  2. though we don’t know each other, well a little in passing over the years of homeschooling and through Leslie Titcombe, I feel very privileged to be able to read your more than articulate and terribly honest words due to my continuing friendship with Martin. I wish to tell you that I admire your ability to share this experience and that yes, I hear you, I read these words and I contemplate, and I learn. Thanks you

    Like

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