What to say to a cancer survivor

What to say to a cancer survivor

Introduction: The Sensitivity of Communicating with Cancer Survivors

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been faced with a situation where we want to be there for someone, but we just don’t know what to say. We either blurt out the first thing that comes to mind and might not come out in the way we intended, or we avoid saying anything at all, making someone feel like we aren’t acknowledging their experience. Effective communication with a cancer survivor is crucial for supporting their recovery and well-being, but what does that mean? 

Cancer is a challenging experience that can impact not only a person's physical health but also their emotions and daily life. When we communicate with sensitivity and understanding, we create a supportive environment that can positively influence a survivor's mental and emotional state. Clear and open communication helps survivors express their needs, concerns, and feelings, fostering a sense of connection and trust. It's important to listen actively, offer empathy, and be mindful of their unique experiences. I repeat, it’s important to listen actively. Listen actively. If you can listen actively, you have won half the battle of figuring out ways to effectively communicate with and support a cancer survivor. It takes a village to get through cancer, and it takes that same village to promote a community of ongoing support. Your presence and impact in a cancer survivor’s life does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. As a cancer survivor myself, I can tell you that with 100% confidence - we appreciate your support! More than words can ever express.

Recognizing Common Missteps in Communication

Here are some common missteps that you can try to avoid when communicating with a cancer survivor:

Minimizing the Experience: Avoid downplaying the severity of the cancer experience. Well-meaning individuals might unintentionally minimize the challenges by saying things like, "It could be worse" or "At least it's treatable." Acknowledging the difficulty of their experience while offering support is very helpful.

Unsolicited Advice: Offering unsolicited medical advice or suggesting alternative treatments may inadvertently undermine the survivor's trust in their healthcare team. It's essential to respect their chosen treatment plan and encourage discussions about it if they wish to share.

Overusing Positive Clichés: While positivity is important, using clichés like "Everything happens for a reason" or "Stay positive, and you'll be fine" might oversimplify the survivor's emotional journey. Acknowledge their feelings and provide a listening ear instead.

Comparing Stories: Sharing stories of other cancer experiences, especially those with negative outcomes, can create unnecessary fear or anxiety. Each person's story is unique, and comparing situations may not be helpful.

Intrusive Questions: Asking invasive questions about the details of their diagnosis, treatment, or prognosis can make survivors uncomfortable. Respect their privacy and let them share information at their own pace.

Dismissing Emotions: Telling someone to "be strong" or "move on" without acknowledging their emotions can be dismissive. Allow the survivor to express their feelings and offer a supportive presence. We all grieve our life “before cancer” at different rates and in different ways, so be respectful of those individual differences.

Assuming Normalcy: Assuming that everything is back to normal after treatment may overlook the ongoing challenges, such as lingering side effects, emotional struggles, or fear of recurrence. Be mindful of the lasting impact of cancer on a survivor's life. (Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving for anyone dealing with it!)

Overpromising Support: While offering support is essential, making promises that may be difficult to fulfill, such as "I'll be there every step of the way," can create unrealistic expectations. Instead, express your commitment to being supportive within your capacity. Offering specific support is helpful as well, “I will come over this weekend to walk your dog” instead of “let me know how I can help.”

Understanding these common missteps can guide individuals in fostering more thoughtful and compassionate communication with cancer survivors, ensuring that their emotional needs are met during this challenging time and that you are avoiding as many foot-in-mouth moments as possible as well.

Practical Advice: What to Say and What Not to Say to a Cancer Survivor

Here are some things our community of cancer patients, caregivers and survivors have mentioned as things that are helpful vs. things to be avoided:

Positive and Supportive Statements:

  • "I'm here for you."
  • "You're not alone in this experience."
  • "I care about how you're feeling."
  • "I'll support you in any way I can."
  • "Your feelings are valid, and I'm here to listen."
  • "Take things one step at a time; I'm with you."

Providing Genuine Support:

  • Offer practical help, like running errands or preparing meals.
  • Be specific in your offers, such as, "Can I drive you to your appointments?"
  • Text or leave a message to let them know you are thinking of them without the expectation of a response.

Words and Phrases to Avoid:

  • Avoid saying, "I know how you feel."
  • Don't compare their situation to others.
  • Avoid clichés like, "Everything happens for a reason."
  • Minimize the use of phrases like, "At least it's not as bad as..."
  • Steer clear of unsolicited medical advice.
  • Don't ask invasive questions about their diagnosis or treatment.
  • Avoid saying, "You should be positive all the time."
  • Don't share negative stories or statistics without permission.

Offering Genuine Support Versus Empty Platitudes:

  • Instead of saying, "It'll all be fine," say, "I'll be here for you no matter what."
  • Rather than saying, "Don't worry," say, "I understand this is tough, and I'm here to support you."
  • Instead of, "Everything happens for a reason," say, "It's okay to feel upset; I'm here to listen."

By offering genuine support, being specific in your offers, and avoiding comparisons or empty platitudes, you can create a positive and understanding environment for a cancer survivor. Remember, your presence and sincere expressions of care can make a significant difference during their experience.

How to Offer Support Beyond Words

Here are some ways, beyond words, that you can support a cancer survivor.

Staying in Touch and Being a Constant Presence:

  • Regularly check in with the survivor through calls, texts, or visits.
  • Offer a consistent and reassuring presence to help combat feelings of isolation.
  • Be flexible with communication, understanding that some days may be better than others.

Being a Good Listener and Respecting Privacy:

  • Create a safe space for the survivor to express their thoughts and feelings without judgment.
  • Listen actively and without interruption, allowing them to share at their own pace.
  • Respect their need for privacy; don't press for details they may not be comfortable sharing.

Connecting Survivors with Supportive Communities:

  • Help the survivor find local or online support groups where they can connect with others facing similar challenges.
  • Encourage participation in community events or programs tailored for cancer survivors.
  • Share information about resources that provide emotional, practical, or financial support.

Simple Gestures – From Accompanying Them to Treatments to Thoughtful Gift Baskets:

  • Offer to accompany them to medical appointments or treatments to provide companionship and support.
  • Create thoughtful gift baskets with items like comfort foods, books, or self-care items to brighten their day.
  • Provide practical help, such as running errands, cooking meals, or assisting with household tasks.

Helping with Daily Tasks:

  • Offer to assist with daily chores, such as grocery shopping, cleaning, or childcare responsibilities.
  • Coordinate a schedule with friends and family to ensure a consistent flow of support.
  • Provide transportation to and from appointments if needed.

Celebrating Milestones:

  • Acknowledge and celebrate milestones in their cancer journey, such as the end of treatments or positive medical reports.
  • Organize small gatherings or send cards to mark these significant moments, reinforcing the positive steps they've taken.

Encouraging Healthy Activities:

  • Suggest and participate in light and enjoyable activities that promote relaxation and well-being.
  • Consider activities like walks, meditation, or gentle exercises that cater to their comfort level and health status.

Educating Yourself about Cancer:

  • Take the time to educate yourself about their specific type of cancer, treatments, and potential side effects.
  • This knowledge will enable you to provide informed and empathetic support, and it shows that you genuinely care about understanding their experience.

By offering consistent, practical, and thoughtful support, you can make a meaningful impact on the well-being of a cancer survivor beyond words. Your actions can help create a supportive network that enhances their overall quality of life during and after treatment.

The Power of Community and Support

The power of community and support is like a strong helping hand for cancer survivors. Connecting with others who've faced similar challenges can be a source of comfort and understanding. Joining support groups provides a space where survivors can share their experiences, ask questions, and offer encouragement to one another. Platforms like CaringBridge become virtual hubs of support, allowing survivors to connect with friends and family, share updates, and receive messages of encouragement. This sense of community helps combat feelings of loneliness and provides a network of people who genuinely care. Together, survivors and their support communities form a resilient bond, creating a positive force that helps navigate the ups and downs of the cancer experience. Some of my dearest friends to this day, are fellow cancer survivors who “get” the terrifying and tumultuous experience I’ve endured.

Join the Global Manta Cares Community

At Manta Cares, we are also here to help! Our team is made up of cancer survivors, patients and caregivers, creating tools and resources to help make navigating the cancer experience just a little easier. Visit our website for free resources (like our chemo checklist for caregivers or gift giving guide for people going through cancer treatments). We have been through the cancer experience personally and are here to let you know that you are not alone in your experience.

Podcast Feature: "Patient from Hell"

We produce a bi-weekly podcast called “Patient from Hell” that shares real stories from cancer patients and caregivers along with information from leading oncologists and non-profit thought leaders. Hosted by cancer survivor, Samira Daswani, the podcast aims to educate, empower and inspire you. Check it out and subscribe here.

Conclusion: The Journey of Understanding and Empathy

In conclusion, navigating the sensitive terrain of communicating with cancer survivors involves understanding the profound impact of cancer on physical health and emotional well-being. Active listening, empathy, and a mindful approach to each cancer survivor’s unique experiences lay the foundation for meaningful support. Recognizing and avoiding common missteps in communication, such as minimizing their experience or offering unsolicited advice, is crucial. The power of community and support emerges as a beacon of strength for cancer survivors, emphasizing the importance of connecting with others who share similar challenges. Support groups and platforms like CaringBridge serve as virtual lifelines, fostering understanding, encouragement, and a sense of belonging. Beyond words, practical gestures, staying in touch, and celebrating milestones contribute to a supportive network that enhances a survivor's quality of life. The resilience of survivors and the collective strength of their support communities create a positive force that helps navigate the complexities of the cancer journey. Your sincere presence and thoughtful actions, more than words, make a lasting impact on the lives of cancer survivors, providing comfort and fostering a sense of unity.

Disclaimer: The content provided by Manta Cares Inc. is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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