How to Talk to Someone With Cancer

02/11/2016 02:03 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2017
Close-up of psychiatrist hands together holding palm of her patient
Close-up of psychiatrist hands together holding palm of her patient

Knowing how to talk to someone with cancer can be terrifying and made even harder when you know and are close to that person.

Will you know what to say? How do you know what is the right thing to say? Is there even a right thing to say?

As someone who has recently been diagnosed with cancer and in the middle of treatment, I've had some time to think about the conversations I've had with family, friends, colleagues, completely strangers.

So many have got it right but so many have not. I'll be honest though, any conversation is better than none!

Here are my thoughts on how how to talk to someone with cancer:

1. Fine doesn't always mean fine

Try not to assume they're fine because they say they are -- assume they're not fine but they do not want to talk about it for one reason or another.

Make suggestions of ways you could help if they ever want you to in the future -- calling to say Hi, looking after kids, helping to cook, drop offs or pick ups from appointments etc. Keep the conversation going by keeping in touch -- they might just be waiting for the right time when they're ready to open up and ask for help.

2. Remember it isn't "just hair" that they might lose, it's their hair.

That hair is a part of them so try not to be too dismissive. Offer sympathy, don't bombard them with ideas of how they should deal with the hair loss. Ask if they have a plan of how to manage it, ask if they want you to do any research for them, or to go to the hairdressers or help choose a wig.

Offer to shave your own hair off! They won't take you up on it but they'll be blown away that you've offered. Just, um, be prepared to follow through if they DO take you up on it! And what a bloody brilliant person you are if you do. (This is NOT a hint, I do not want any friends to shave their heads for me!)

3. Hold the horror stories

Never ever, ever, ever, give bad news stories about others you know who did not do well with cancer. In fact, try to only talk about positive stories of those who you know personally who survived and are living happily cancer free now.

4. Always ask permission before offering any advice

I've had some amazing suggestions from friends and family on different treatment plans to research, diet advice, how to lift my mood if I feel down -- all sorts of wonderful things I would never have thought of. The best part is, they've asked me first if I actually want to hear their recommendations and I've welcomed them.

Some might only be interested in following their medical professionals advice and otherwise keeping it simple so bear that in mind if you have any suggestions and ask first if they want to hear them. Don't be offended if they say no, it's the person who is fighting cancer who will ultimately decide on their plan of attack and they should do it their own way.

5. Stay positive -- as much as you possibly can

I know it's sometimes much easier said than done but speak positively as much as possible. Don't tell them how sad you are, how awful it is, how you're scared for them -- these are your emotions to deal with. You're completely entitled to them and they're so legitimate but try not to inflict them on to that person. Except in the early diagnosis days of course when, let's face it, everyone's a balling mess! There are also bound to be other times you all break down together along the way.

Do make sure you look after your own mental well-being by talking to your other friends and family and stay positive for yourself. Cancer does not simply effect the person diagnosed with it, it's everyone close to them too. Be kind to yourself. Try to keep a positive outlook for you as well as them.

6. Spare some time to help those close to the person with cancer

Don't forget those also affected -- the partner, children, parents, best friends, carers. Think about what you might be able to do to offer support to them. Check in with them and be positive -- they do not want to hear negativity either.

Listen to them, let them open up to you, offer counsel if you can. Offer support and kindness and someone they can unburden their feelings and fears on so they don't bottle it all up.

You do not need to be too scared to reach out to someone with cancer. You might need to tip toe a little bit in the early days when everyone is taking in the news.

My biggest advice is to please be present -- make that friend or loved one know that you are 100% there for them from day one right through to full healing for anything they need and then keep telling them that. Back it up, offer to help, tell them you love them, be positive but not blasé. Don't disappear.

Keep their spirits up, make them laugh, forgive their mood swings and memory loss and sad days. Cry with them, then distract them from their fears and pick them up again. Use positive words. Tell them how loved they are.

If you don't know what to say or what to do for the best, ask them. They will tell you.

With that support and love, the cancer has no chance of survival but believe me, those friendships will survive and they will last forever.