NPR logo What Do You Say to Someone with Cancer?

What Do You Say to Someone with Cancer?

Over these last couple of months, we've talked a lot about what we, as cancer patients say to others. The whole truth and nothing but? Or a slightly watered-down version? And in the last couple of days, we've been talking about what other people say. Does it help, or in some cases, and totally inadvertently, does it hurt?

A woman named Paula wrote in to ask "What would you rather they say?" Excellent question, and I don't have a ready answer for her. Sometimes I don't need others to say anything, sometimes I just need them to listen. I appreciate it when they say they're sorry, and that's when I find myself comforting others rather than the other way around. It's hard to see the sadness in the eyes of others, I truly wish there was something I could do or say to make it easier.

I don't really need advice. Some people want to suggest a particular form of treatment, or diet, or something like that. I listen to all of that, and do check out things that sound promising. But it's hard to keep track of every new drug or treatment or diet or whatever. It all becomes a little overwhelming at times, but you also don't want to miss something important.

So to get back to Paula's question, what do I want others to say? There is no right answer. It depends on me, my mood, how I'm feeling, my emotional state, and it also depends on who it is that I'm talking to. Some people don't need to say a word, I already know how they feel. It doesn't need to be spoken. Some talk about everything but my cancer, and sometimes that's exactly what I need too. There are no magic words that I need to hear. Yes, there are some things that shouldn't be said, but sometimes are. And I don't think that people are insensitive, I think it's hard to know what to say.

Before I set off down the cancer road, I'm sure that I said some really stupid things in those situations. I just didn't know any better. So maybe when it comes down to it, it's not the words that matter so much, maybe it's just the act of trying to say something, for our sake, and for theirs. Maybe it's just the act of trying to reach across that dividing line that seems so huge to all of us on both sides, maybe that's what's really important.

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