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Cancer Etiquette

Cancer Etiquette: What to Say and How to Act

When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, navigating the complexities of communication can be daunting. The fear of saying or doing the wrong thing often leaves many feeling awkward and uncertain. Maintaining open and thoughtful communication with people living with and after cancer is critically important, providing a sense of support, connection, and reduced isolation during such a challenging period. It is about finding the right balance—offering support to uplift and comfort the individual, acknowledging their struggle without amplifying their distress. 

Let’s navigate through this together.

1. Active Listening

Active listening involves being fully present in the moment, paying attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues, and responding with empathy and validation. It involves putting aside your own thoughts and opinions and truly listening to the other person’s perspective.  A cancer diagnosis may be accompanied by feelings of isolation, fear, or anger, and by active listening, you create a safe space for your loved one to express their concerns and emotions without feeling judged or minimized.

THE DOS of Active ListeningTHE DON’TS of Active Listening
DO clear the room of distractions by turning off the television or music

DO focus entirely on your loved one, maintain eye contact, lean in, and adopt an open posture to convey your full attention.

DO paraphrase their words using your own and summarize their sentiments to show you are grasping the depth of their feelings.

DO Use open-ended questions to invite deeper sharing, which ensures they feel heard without feeling judged and rushed
DON’T glance at your phone or devices, which signals disinterest and makes your loved one feel undervalued and isolated

DON’T discuss advice or stories or other people’s experiences.  This can minimize your loved one’s feelings and divert attention away from their needs

DON’T interrupt or finish their sentences, which can be perceived as dismissive and reduce their willingness to share their feelings

DON’T share your own experiences.  While contributing may seem helpful, it is not the time to do so and may make your loved one feel unheard.  Listen and share stories if your loved one requests you to do so.

2. Words of Support

Choosing the right words when communicating can significantly impact your loved one’s emotional well-being.  Here are some tips on what to say and not say to support them during this challenging time:

THE DOS of CommunicationTHE DON’TS of Communication
DO reassure them of your unwavering support, saying things like, “I am here for whatever you need.  You are not alone.”

DO acknowledge that one of the most challenging aspects of cancer can be the waiting periods between appointments, testing, and treatments.  Avoid saying, “Relax”, and instead say “Waiting is the worst.”
DO ask open-ended questions that invite your loved one to express their thoughts and emotions at their own pace.

DON’T say, “You’re so brave” or “Stay strong”.  This may pressure someone to suppress their true feelings, and the reality is that your loved one may have negative days during their treatment, where they are more vulnerable.

DON’T compare and minimize their experience with phrases such as, “At least it isn’t worse” or “I know how you feel”.  Instead, say things such as, “I can’t possibly understand how you feel, but I will be here.”

DON’T use the terms “battle”, “warrior”, or “fight”, which can put too much emphasis on either winning or losing against cancer.

3. Actions Talk!

Offering help is always a nice gesture; however, many people do not want to become a burden on their friends and family and may decline the offer. Instead of asking, “What can I bring you today?” send a gift card to a local restaurant or drop off food.  You can also speak to them about driving to and from their appointments, doing small errands such as grocery shopping, or taking their pet for a walk. During cancer and its treatments, day-to-day tasks may seem overwhelming, and practical help from loved ones can bring enormous comfort and relief.

However, do not make decisions without their input, assuming you know best. This can diminish their sense of control and autonomy. Additionally, never surprise your loved one with a visit or gathering without prior communication. Although well-intentioned, these can be overwhelming and exhausting to the individual, who may already have limited energy.

THE DOS of Active SupportTHE DON’TS of Active Support
DO prepare meals that are not only nutritious but also cater to their changing tastes and dietary needs, underscoring your thoughtfulness towards their well-being.

DO take the initiative to handle daily chores or errands, alleviating the stress of mundane tasks and allowing them more time to rest and recuperate.
offer physical comfort through actions like giving a gentle massage or arranging comfortable seating. This provides relief from physical discomfort and a sense of closeness.
DON’T make decisions without their input, assuming you know best. This can inadvertently diminish their sense of control and autonomy.

DON’T surprise them with visits or gatherings without prior communication. While well-intentioned, these can be overwhelming and exhaust their limited energy.

DON’T neglect to ask before helping with personal tasks. What seems helpful can sometimes feel invasive if not discussed beforehand.

Conclusion: Communicating with a loved one diagnosed with Cancer

In conclusion, navigating communication with a loved one during or after their cancer and its treatment requires empathy, patience, and understanding.  By acknowledging the challenges they face, we can offer support and compassion.  Remember to actively listen, validate their emotions, and provide practical assistance.  At Cancer Fatigue Services, we understand the toll cancer can take on both individuals experiencing it and their caregivers, and offer personalized help and resources to all parties’ unique needs.  Reach out to us today to learn more.

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