Five Things to Say to a Cancer Patient: Talking With Someone Who Has Cancer

By Michael Buller

Whenever I’ve met people with cancer, I’ve been at a loss for what to say and which questions to ask.

Now, as a cancer patient, I realize the irony.

Looking back, whatever I said ranged from ignorant to unhelpful. Or, I would just say nothing. I would talk about anything and everything else, but not about the cancer, being fully aware of the elephant in the room.

But here’s the thing: the elephant’s not in the room. At least not for the cancer patient; not all the time. To let the topic of conversation be the elephant is to let the disease define the person. And it doesn’t.

Ever.

So not discussing the topic is always a completely acceptable option. But if you feel compelled by compassion, concern, or curiosity (and assuming your friend is open to talking), here are a few good questions to ask. I wish I had been able to think of any of these when I was on the asking side. (For some good tips about what to say to someone who’s been just diagnosed, read this post.)

  • How are you? Seems simple enough. But it’s better than: are you okay? Because most cancer patients aren’t okay, by definition. They have cancer. “Are you okay” asks for a yes or no answer and it’s just not simple.
  • What type of cancer is it? This beats the alternative that I’ve heard asked: “Is it the good kind of cancer?” There are different types of cancer to be sure — and all have different outcomes — so it’s important to know what cancer type your friend may be facing. But there is no good kind of cancer.
  • How’s Stacy? This only works if your friend has a significant other named Stacy. But a cancer diagnosis places a huge burden on spouses/significant others; they’re often the unforgotten partners who bear the brunt of logistical challenges, not to mention the difficult emotional challenges. It’s always good to ask this question. If your friend’s significant other is not named Stacy, improvise.
  • Is there anything I can do? 99 times out of 100, the answer will be no. But it lends great support just to ask the question. One of these times, someone will say yes.
  • Want to grab a beer? Or coffee. Or Del’s Lemonade. Or a fruit smoothie. Boredom is anxiety’s playing partner. Just staying busy, I find, offers its own benefit in its ability to keep one from diving too deeply into the often overwhelming overload of information overload; but a beverage and the company of a friend makes it even more valuable.
    As I said, these questions and many others have been asked of me. Even more numerous have been the messages of support, prayer, good vibes, positive juju, you name it. All of it — every last well-meaning word is appreciatively received.

Michael Buller is director of Editorial and Creative Services at Dana-Farber, and currently a patient.