What to say when a friend is diagnosed with cancer.
There are certain times even the chattiest individuals can be lost for words. It might be from the joy of your team winning a grand final, the shock of a positive line on a pregnancy test or catching a glimpse of your bad-ass self in the mirror before a night out. Sometimes, however, the absence of knowing what to say might come from some pretty shitty news - that someone you love has landed a ticket to cancer land.
From my experience, there is no perfect wording to get through such a shit show. There is also no ‘one size fits all’ as each warrior is different and so too is the unique friendship you have with them.
However, there are certainly some tips I can share having been on the receiving end of some brilliant and at other times haphazard words of empathy and support. Here is my guide on what to say and not to say to a cancer warrior.
1. Admit this is SHIT. Swear, send angry emojis, stamp your foot, even scream a little. DO NOT sugar coat the situation and talk about journey’s, silver linings, positivity, everything happens for a reason – blah blah. At least not at the start. There is a time to be positive, but please acknowledge the heaviness of the situation and give your friend the space to chuck a tantrum, breakdown, be shocked or just be sad if needed.
2. Short and sweet is okay. Let them know you’re thinking of them. It doesn’t have to be a long 8-page essay, in-fact short is better as their energy will be low and the incoming texts are high.
3. DON’T talk about your aunt/cousin/hairdresser/dog that died of cancer. JUST. DON’T. (It’s crazy that I even have to mention it but it happened to me multiple times.)
4. DON’T compare this to when you had a cold/flu/dental surgery/ingrown toenail/a bad back/alcohol poisoning. It’s not the same. With cancer comes a plethora of bonus layers such as facing your own mortality, losing your hair, your energy and your identity which then lingers in your life for years – if not forever.
5. I still don't know what to say. You're totally allowed to say that. 'I don't know what to say...' FOLLOWED BY 'But know I love you/care for you/am thinking of you.' Bottom line, just don’t flake out and avoid them.
6. Remember, they're still the same person. Even though at times I looked like a boiled potato, I was still the same Emily inside. I still loved Sound of Music, dancing, beautiful design, stupid jokes and long adventurous walks. So remember - you absolutely can talk about the same stuff you used to talk about before cancer. In fact, that's probably exactly what your loved one wants. They will still want to hear about your bad date, what your crazy boss said or chat about the epic netball game last week.
7. Be practical. If big conversations are not your thing, well actions speak louder than words. Could you drive them to their next appointment, sit with them during chemo, walk their dog, hang out the washing, take their kids to swim practice or water their cactus garden? Remember - assert your help. Try not to say 'let me know if you need help' but something like 'I'll drop you off a frozen lasagne on Thursday.'
TIP: If this feels like your jam, check out Gather my Crew for more practical suggestions and help
8. Hold it together. This type of news is shattering for everyone involved so understandably there will be tears, however try your best to get them out before you see your mate. You can certainly say how terrible you feel but don't overburden the with your feelings too. There's nothing worse than having to console a friend who is taking the news of your cancer worse than you are.
9. A picture is worth 1000 words. Send them pretty images, the link to your fave song, a funny meme that you know they'd lol at or a few emojis. (HEART, KISS, HUG, EMOJI). Some of these suggestions might need a little explanation message first like 'I heard your news. I'm so sorry. I hope this cheers you up.'
Image be Selva raj
10. Stop, collaborate and LISTEN. Once you've said you're bit it is time to listen and let them lead the convo. Stay engaged and take cues from their body language. You'll know pretty soon on whether they want to open up and chat or avoid the details of cancer land. And if you're still not sure, you can always ask whether they want to talk about it or something else.
11. Cancer doesn’t end when chemo does. Regularly check in, especially after all the chemo is done. This is when your warriors will be catching up on all the stuff that has happened and when it usually hits hard.