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What TO and what NOT TO say to a cancer patient

What TO and what NOT TO say to a cancer patient

The wonderful empathy cards from Emily McDowell got me thinking. I could relate to the faux pas and clichés as I heard all of them more than once during my own cancer diagnosis...and the heartfelt, straight-talking messages completely tugged at my heart strings as they were EXACTLY what I would have loved to have hear.

So...what should you avoid saying to someone going through treatment for cancer? Here are my top 5 things NOT to say, which illustrate why Emily McDowell's empathy cards hit the mark:

  1. ‘You’ll be FINE.’  - You’re not a doctor. If our oncologists can’t tell us this, with all due respect, you have no way of knowing this. It feels like you are belittling our very real fears.
  1. ‘Just stay positive.’  - It’s OK to cry and feel sad and worried sometimes. In fact it is probably a healthy way of coming to terms with the diagnosis.
  1. ‘I’ve read about this miracle cure…’ - Don’t believe everything you read online. ANYONE can write about a hokum pokum cure on the internet (think Belle Gibson). I don't believe that half a lemon a day with a teaspoon of turmeric is not a better cure than chemo. We have the internet too and have made informed decisions about our treatment options.

Emily Mcdowell empathy cards

  1. ‘Oh, my neighbour/cousin/hairdresser had that. She died.’ - I have NO idea why so many people think it’s a good idea to share stories like this. But they do. And it REALLY doesn’t help! I was stopped many a times by complete strangers who recognised the tell-tale headscarf signs, and wanted to tell me about a relative, friend or aquaintance who had died of cancer. Cue them walking off and me bursting into tears in the street or cake aisle at Sainsburys...

Emily Mcdowell empathy cards

  1. ‘Hooray! It’s all over.’ - It takes a long time to adapt to the ‘new normal’; coming to terms with the constant fear of the cancer returning, recuperating from surgery and treatment and dealing with ongoing side effects. Many of us find this harder than any of the treatment, but it isn’t outwardly obvious.

That's well and good, but most people who haven't been through it just don't know what to say. So here are my top 5 tips of what you should say:

  1. ‘I don’t really know what to say.’ - Be honest. It is better than any meaningless platitudes or clichés. We don’t expect you to know what to say. Just be there for us.

Emily Mcdowell empathy cards

  1. ‘What can I do to help?’ - Make it clear that you want to help and be direct. Casual offers of ‘let me know if there is anything I can do’ are harder to take up.
  1. ‘I’m so sorry you are ill.’ - An acknowledgement that you care and realise that we are having a rubbish time is much better than any meaningless platitude or cliché.

Emily Mcdowell empathy cards

  1. ‘I’m here for you.’ - Cancer can be very isolating and friends tend to fall by the wayside. The best friends are those who remain by our sides throughout and keep in touch with regular phone calls, texts, letters, emails and visits (when we feel up to it).

Emily McDowell empathy cards

  1. ‘Talk to me.’ - Allow us to talk openly and frankly. Don't shy away from topics that make you feel uncomfortable if it is clear that we want or need to talk about them.

These cards help the sender say the right thing and avoid (unintentionally) saying the completely wrong thing. They are much more apt than many 'get well', 'sympathy' and 'thinking of you' cards...and should bring a smile to your loved one's face.

Macmillan asked me for my top 10 tips for supporting a loved one with cancer. Click here to read my blog post.

Click here to view the full range of Emily McDowell's empathy cards available through Not Another Bunch Of Flowers.



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