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Healthy Aging

How to Help a Friend with Cancer

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 02/10/2010
Last Updated: 03/10/2010

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You're not alone if you get all tongue-tied and nervous when you try to talk to—or comfort—someone with an illness like cancer (or any other serious illness). I mean, I had cancer and I still have a hard time knowing what to say when it's someone else. When I was the patient, so many people either never said anything, afraid of saying the wrong thing, or ended up with their foot in their mouth. Like another mother from my son's preschool class who said absolutely nothing; instead she rapidly turned her grocery cart in the opposite direction and ran when she spotted me coming down the same aisle in the supermarket.

Or the woman who came to visit me after I had my mastectomy, looked quizzically at me and asked, "Why are you walking all lopsided?" Truly.

I'm not bitter, I'm really not. I realize it is a tough situation, and sometimes a no-win situation at that. That's why I reached out to Kelly Connors from and proposed we tackle this tough topic. We got together with Lori Hope, author and speaker and another cancer survivor. Lori has written the wonderfully informative book, "Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know".

In case you missed it, here's another chance to , or listen to it now in the player below. I promise you'll come away with something new.

It helps to know what to say—not just to the other person you're saying it to, but to you, too.


thanks for sharing how you delt with your diagnosis and treatment and for sharing such a great online resource. I find that i am tuning in to the radio while working What a great radio program.

Thank you for this. A good friend has been diagnosed with cancer multiple times and it is helpful to know what to say.

People acted the same way with my elderly mom. She was bedridden, at 96, and loved seeing people, but suddenly everyone shied away. How stupid people can be! I am becoming convinced that the incredible increase in cancer, especially in cancer in younger people, is related to the increase in synthetic chemicals in our environment. The Silent Spring Institute is trying to figure out why the cancer rate is higher in some parts of the country, like Marin County, CA, and Barnstable County, MA, where I live.

"I had cancer and still have a hard time knowing what to say when it's someone else." says it all really, doesn't it?

We all shy away from difficult subjects -- death, divorce, disease -- come immediately to mind.

People do want to show they care, I find, they're just not sure how to do it. Kudos to you for leading the way.

I agree that it's tough to know what to say to someone in this situation, so sometimes the best thing to do is offer a hug and let them know that you're thinking of them. Same goes for someone who's grieving.

So good that there is a dialogue about having a dialogue. It may sound funny but it's true. Thanks.

Kudos to you Sheryl that you didn't take anyone's attempts at comforting words--or their complete avoidance--too personally. Sometimes you just don't know what to say to someone in need, or you say the wrong thing with all the best of intentions.

My best friend's son - my son's best friend - was diagnosed with a brain tumor about 7 years ago. Truly. What do you say to the mother of a kid under ten years old who's diagnosed with a life threatening disease? I don't feel that I said the right things - ever - but she always knew that she and her son were in my heart. Happily, he's just reached his five year cancer free date, regardless of any stupid things I may have said!

Kris, I don't know if anyone would know quite what to say about this awfully sad situation. But I'm so happy to learn that he is doing so well!

This is clearly a universal problem and I'm so glad that everyone has shared their personal stories. Thanks for all the feedback. I think it's comforting to all of us to know that although we might have the best of intentions, it's oftentimes difficult to express it in the right way. Sometimes, as Susan pointed out, words are unnecessary and a hug goes a long way.

I have learned so much from my husband (a doctor who specializes in end of life care) about broaching difficult subjects. He has a few great phrases that leave the door open to further conversation but don't pry. One is obvious: "I'd like to hear more about that."

Katherine, So interesting how so few words can open the door to a LOT of things that might not have otherwise been said. Thanks for sharing.

I'm so glad you are addressing this. Not only is it hard to talk with someone with cancer, but anyone who is struggling/suffering with nearly anything. No one teaches us how to deal with hardship of any kind, so we bumble around and do all of the wrong things--ignore it, try to make the person feel "happy," say stupid things like "it's for the best" and "it could be worse" etc.

Yes, Alisa, so true. No matter what it is - illness or a personal crisis - it's oftentimes so difficult to come up with the "right" thing to say.

we are going through this right now. It's very hard when a family member has cancer.

So sorry to hear that, Jennifer. I hope this might be helpful to you and your family in one way or another.

My sister-in-law (age 41) has just been diagnosed with stage 4 non-hodgkins lymphoma. I want to be there for her but like many, don't want to be intrusive and want to make sure I say the right thing. This has been very helpful. I will try to let her lead the way!

Hi. I am a male, aged 53 from malaysia and recently I was told that I had stage 4 Rectum cancer.I recently had a colostomy surgery.I still can't accept the fact that I have cancer and my mind won't accept it but whenever I look at this bag of mine My tears just roll down my cheeks and I aks myself over and over, Why me?


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