What To Say and Do When Someone You Love is Diagnosed

Apr 28, 2023 | Blog Articles

Do you find it challenging to know what to say when someone you care about is diagnosed with cancer or a serious disease? You’re not alone!

Many people find it difficult to know what to say when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer or a serious disease. Some people find it so uncomfortable that they’d rather cross the street than say hello to you. Why is this? The anguish of diagnosis is a big enough trauma without feeling that people have deserted you because they don’t know what to say.

So, what is supportive when someone you love has been given a diagnosis? What should we say? How can we unobtrusively, or perhaps obviously, let them know that we’re here for them?

Petrea shares some supportive and meaningful insights into the DOs and DON’Ts of what to say to someone who’s just been diagnosed:

The DOs:

  • Do something practical if you can. Offer to pick the children up after school or drive your friend to their treatment or support group or counsellor, replenish their freezer with meals, take the cat/dog to the vet if needed, pick up and do the laundry or vacuuming or arrange for someone to do so.
  • Listening, without judgement, is the greatest gift you can offer. The next most important quality is confidentiality. Let a person’s story come to rest in your own heart rather than being a source of gossip.
  • Most importantly, ask your friend what kind of support they might most value. Would they like you to research options, doctors, treatments, or complementary therapies?
  • Some useful words to say to someone newly diagnosed:

    “If you feel like talking, I’m always here to listen.”

    “What you’re feeling is normal. Many people feel that way.”

    I care about you and I’m here to support you in any way I can.”

    “Why wouldn’t you be feeling sad/angry/upset given this is such a shock.”

    “This has been such a shock. I’m not surprised you feel this way.”

    “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling right now but I’m happy to listen”.

The DON’Ts:

  • Don’t tell people to be positive or keep their chin up.
  • Don’t ask people how long they have to live.
  • Don’t say that you know how they feel. Ask them how they feel.
  • Don’t tell them what they should do.
  • Don’t say you know that everything will be OK.
  • Don’t tell them that they’re strong and can ‘beat this’.
  • Don’t tell people that they shouldn’t feel the way they do. If a person feels depressed, angry, or despairing, then respect their feelings and don’t judge them. A person won’t disclose what you might perceive as negative feelings if they feel they’ll be judged. It is not negative to talk about death, suicide, despair, depression, panic, or fear. Talking about things gets the energy of the feeling moving and as soon as we’re able to utter the unutterable we find the feeling diminishes in its intensity. Sometimes we don’t know what we feel until we hear what we say.
  • Don’t tell people about the people you know who’ve suffered with or died of the disease that your friend’s just been diagnosed with.
  • Don’t avoid or withdraw from the person.
  • Don’t assume you know how another person is feeling. For instance, for one person who has cancer in the breast, she may feel relieved that it’s in a part of her body where it can easily be removed, whilst for another it may be devastating to her body image and sexuality.

Support available:

  • Sometimes the most unexpected people appear in your life and are wonderfully supportive. Be open to these ‘angels’ in your life. People are often so willing to help.
  • For many people, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they realise how much other people really care about them. It can be overwhelming to know how much a person is genuinely loved and cared for.
  • Quest for Life Programs and support.

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