What to say (and not to say) when someone tells you they have cancer
As previously shared (Hodgkin Lymphoma at 40+), getting the diagnosis about My Hodgkin Lymphoma was not an easy moment. But sharing it with others wasn’t necessarily less emotionally difficult.
Especially at this age, 40+, “stuck” in the middle between two completely different generations I needed to break the news to — the younger generation, the children, and the older one — the parents. Early on I’ve made the decision to tell them only when the “bottom line” is clear — what type it is, what stage, the recommended treatment protocol. Why? Knowledge is power. Minimize the uncertainty. Save them from weeks of anxiety or imagining worst case scenarios.
And in all these conversations I tried keeping the three principles: Honesty, Brevity, Positivity.
The other decision I made was that this new health condition is not a secret to be kept. This isn’t to say I immediately went ahead to broadcast it in the 20+ WhatsApp groups I’m a member of. But, there were definitely additional circles of people who would soon learn about my new “status”- extended family, friends, co-workers. Admittedly, it was sometimes easier to procrastinate sharing my health condition with others beyond the first-degree family. Not because I wanted to hide it, but rather because in a way I wanted to protect them and defer the moment they needed to deal with the unpleasant news. Or maybe because telling people about my condition means that I now needed to deal with how they responded to the news.
After telling more than a dozen people who were not in my first-degree family, I thought it could be fun writing a book about people’s reactions when they first hear that someone they know has cancer. For brevity, I decided to categorize the non-standard ones to the following five buckets and highlight the most common responses:
- The Blunt
- “So what exactly is the prognosis?”
- “So you’re saying you’re feeling ok now, but I know there’s a cumulative effect during chemo so it might get worse…”
- The Spiritual
- “Everything has a reason, everything has a meaning! take the opportunity to find yours…”
- “You know what could really help you? keep a small notebook next to your bed, then as soon as you wake up in the morning — write 3 things you are thankful for in your life, this will keep your positive thoughts during this difficult time”
- The Nosy
- ”Did you cry when you got the diagnosis?”
- “How exactly does it feel after chemo?”
- “Do you know when you’ll start losing hair?”
- The Competitive
- “Hodgkin Lymphoma? oh that’s one of the simplest and most treatable types”
- “You know that some people call it oncological flu? I think even Coronavirus is worse than that”
- The Know-it-All
- “My cousin/grandfather/neighbor/second-grade teacher had the same thing 5 years ago and…” (this is when you get the full rundown of someone else’s Hodgkin Lymphoma, second hand…)
No doubt, it’s unpleasant to hear that someone you know has cancer, and people don’t always know what to say and how to react.
My advice — don’t give advice.
Listen, empathize, ask how you can help, or simply wish the person to get better.