What do you say when someone has cancer?

This is a big question and it can fill people with fear. You find out someone has cancer, maybe its a family member or a friend. What do you say? Do you say anything? Do you completely ignore the 2,000 pound Tyrannosaurus in the room and just hope it goes away? That might seem like the easiest thing in the world to do, but is it helpful? Do you drop your documents and run from the photocopier crying when you see them coming around the corner? That’s probably not the best strategy, but I’ve seen it happen. As a decent human being, how the heck do you handle this?

You see, 30% of us will get a cancer diagnosis at some point in our lives, so at some point, someone you know is going to be dealing with this issue.

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

elton-john-the-diving-board

As a cancer survivor myself, I have had my share of uncomfortable and yes even hilarious conversations when well meaning folks were trying to talk about something that is tough to talk about. So how do we do it?

Here’s a strategy that works for me.

Wait for a time when you have a modicum of privacy and say something like “Hey, I heard you got some bad news lately.” Then …let them talk. What’s great about this is you haven’t said what the bad news is. This gives them the opportunity to talk about it or not. They might shut it right down by saying “Ya, uh that’s private” or “I don’t want to talk about that right now.” This is totally fine and you should respect that. However, they may want to talk about it. They might say something like “Ya, I just got a diagnosis and I am totally freaked out.” or “Its still early days so we’ll wait and see” They might go into a lot of detail and that might surprise you.

If they are anything like me, they will have a LOT to say. Some of my conversations went like this…

Rob: So, ya, I’ve got surgery scheduled for next week and I think the surgeon is good, but he asked me if he should take out my whole thyroid or just part of it. How am I supposed to make that decision? what do you think?”

Bus Driver: I don’t know sir but you still need to deposit a token.

bus driver

You might hear a river of opinions and worry that have been damned up for a long time. You might hear about doctors, hospital parking, and ultrasounds. You might find yourself in a 20 minute conversation that is remarkably one sided. Here’s how to handle this…

Listen.

That’s right. Listen. Listening is quite honestly one of the greatest gifts you can give someone who is going through cancer. In all likelihood they will be under a tremendous amount of stress. Being able to talk to you might be just the thing they need to feel a bit of relief.

You’ll notice I didn’t say “Listen and offer advice”. Please don’t offer advice unless you have a DR in front of your name. You will really want to because you’re a nice person and you will want to fix it. Listening is enough. Please don’t mention that they should eat more veggies or take raspberry keytone or got to Mexico to take a weird drug or talk to your Uncle Lou who beat cancer by eating only radishes. This will not help. Listening and giving them a safe place to share what they are going through will. You might be the only person in their life who they feel they can talk to. If so, then you are even more important to them than you realize.

They may ask for more kinds of help later and that’s terrific, but when a diagnosis  first happens the best thing you can do is talk less and listen more. If you pull this off, you will be giving them a gift that very few know how to give.

Good on you. I like you already.

listening dog