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Words are Powerful

Last updated: January 2023

It’s hard to know what to say to someone who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. I’ve heard so many comments that seem to be made without thought given to the impact on the patient. I’ve also heard comments that are simple, supportive, and show deep concern. Here are some examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly comments that have been offered to me.

Bad reactions to a cancer diagnosis

When I told my neighbor that my daughter was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, my neighbor informed me that her aunt had the same diagnosis and died within a month. I don’t think much has to be said about the impact that kind of statement had on me. It took a while, but I’m now past being angry over her comment. However, I certainly learned that she is not someone I should ever confide in or reach out to for counsel or support.

Learning who you can trust with your emotions, your fears, with your heart is something that’s critical to both the caregiver and the patient. Having someone to reach out to any time day or night can build strength and determination and help us understand that we are definitely not alone. Loneliness in facing cancer is a horrible disease unto itself, a disease we all have some power to eradicate.

Another statement I’ve often heard is "it will be okay." Many people don’t know what to say, and that’s an easy response. While that comment may be easy, it’s typically not helpful, compassionate, or supportive, and can be hurtful instead. I personally feel it diminishes what the patient is going through. It can simplify what is far from being a simple situation.

It's not a "good cancer"

Don’t comment that the person at least has the good kind of cancer. There is no good cancer. Sure, some cancers are more easily treated than others, but a good cancer is something that doesn’t exist. As a recently-diagnosed cancer patient myself, I’ve been told “at least you have the easy cancer,” and, “be glad you have the good cancer.”

Cancer is not easy; cancer is not good. I’ve been diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer, but it’s still cancer. I still have to have surgery, radiation, and hormone therapy. This cancer is causing anxiety, fear; it’s changing me, changing my direction. I’m very grateful it’s not worse, but it’s still not an “easy” cancer.

Better things to say

“What can I do to help” is something that I think many of us have said. I know I have. A cancer patient may not know how to answer that, may not even know where to begin in seeking help with managing everything outside of treatment. When possible, it may be better to be specific. “I’ll come over this afternoon and cut your grass,” or “I’ll shovel your driveway after the snow tomorrow.”

When my husband was first diagnosed, decorating for Christmas wasn’t even a thought. But we woke up one morning to bright lights outside and found that our neighbors had placed Christmas lights all across our porch. What a surprise, what a blessing.

Don't just say nothing

Finally, don’t just say nothing. Sometimes the silence can be the proverbial elephant in the room. Just like thoughtless comments, silence can hurt. Even a simple “I’m so sorry” to acknowledge the disease and its significance may be enough. And if you know the patient well enough, a warm hug or embrace can convey what words cannot.

Words are powerful. They can give comfort, instill hurt, make us feel helpless, or make us feel hopeful. Choosing our words carefully is something we can probably all think about more often. I know I can.

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