When Someone You Care About Says They Have Cancer: Five Things to Know

How would you react if someone you loved told you he or she was diagnosed with cancer? You might even be wondering, “How should I react?”

“Upon hearing the news, it’s natural to feel frightened because we don’t know what to expect,” says clinical psychologist Karen Langer, PhD, Manager of Supportive Services at the NYUCI and Clinical Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine. “With time and more information, however, that initial sense of feeling ‘stunned’ typically dissipates. We mobilize the strengths within ourselves, and we can focus on how to genuinely support our loved ones during this challenging time.”

What might you feel, and how can you best support the patient in his or her time of need? Here is some guidance:

1. Know that you may experience a range of feelings.

It’s normal to feel sadness, worry, anxiety, anger, and disappointment. These feelings are common as we try to get a handle on the situation and feel more in control. Feelings are dynamic and can vary over time. Acknowledge your feelings and let them move through you. And then speak with your loved one to see how you can offer your support.

2. Think carefully about your initial responses.

If you find yourself at a loss for words upon hearing the news, you may respond, “I am so sorry. This news is difficult.” It is then best to say something that will be helpful or healing. You can reassure your loved one that you care and are thinking about him or her, and that you will be there. “Saying something as simple as ‘I am thinking about you, and I am here with you to support you in whatever ways you would like’ can mean a lot to the patient,” says Dr. Langer.

You may offer to go through the process with them if they wish. Be mindful of your schedule and capabilities when you offer help, however, so you can be counted on to deliver what you say you will.

One thing that a person newly diagnosed with cancer doesn’t want to hear: “It could be worse.” It’s a difficult time, and they need support.

3. When it comes to offering help, take your cues from the patient.

Some people look to those around them to form a large support network, while others choose to move forward on their own, or with the help of only a couple of close friends or family members. Let the patient call the shots.

What kind of help might you offer? It can be concrete, such as assisting with chores or errands, shopping, or driving children to and from school and sports practices. Or you can offer to accompany or drive your loved one to appointments and treatments. Another way of helping might include sharing information from the patient with family and friends so he or she doesn’t have to update people individually.

4. Be respectful of those who may decline your help.

You can say you want to help, but if the person declines, it’s not necessarily a reflection of his or her closeness to you. Some people feel uncomfortable having others assist them, and depending on others is not part of their identity. Dr. Langer advises, “Let them know you can ease their burden or workload, but that you respect that they are in charge. This approach enables the patient to maintain autonomy and a sense of control.”

5. Asking “How’s it going for you?” may be a better question than “How are you feeling?”

During the experience with cancer, not everyone wants to talk about their illness, and many may prefer to focus on other things going on in their lives during their conversations with friends or family. Conversely, some people prefer to focus primarily on the cancer. “Determining a person’s preferences about what they want or don’t want to talk about, or to hear about, can be helpful. Good communication is a powerful tool during a journey with cancer,” says Dr. Langer.

Some patients may not return phone calls, or they may seem curt in their replies to your inquiries. Don’t feel you need to distance yourself if this happens. It may still be helpful to reach out to your loved one by phone or text (depending on personal preference), stating, “I just wanted to let you know I am thinking of you. I’m here if you want to call, but if you don’t, that’s fine and I understand.”

And speaking of means of communication, it’s helpful to ask the patient about his or her preferences for contact. Do not use the patient’s office e-mail address or telephone number unless the patient has told you this is okay; some patients prefer not to tell coworkers about their illness. You might also ask if the patient is comfortable with you leaving messages on voicemail or an answering machine.

Support and professional counseling are available for patients with cancer and their families. Friends may also rely on each other and can be instrumental in offering loving support. “There are ways we can help those we love while respecting their personal needs and wishes,” Dr. Langer concludes. “As human beings, cancer challenges us to consider the truly enduring and deeply meaningful aspects of our lives, and to think about those who are most important to us.”