Cancer affects so much more than just your body. Because of this, many people find it difficult to talk about the condition and the worries that come with it. When someone is dealing with cancer, it can be hard to know what to say and almost impossible to predict whether someone wants to discuss how they are feeling or not.

Unsurprisingly, people living with cancer often express their desire to stop whispering awkwardly when talking about cancer and to remember that their diagnosis doesn’t make them a completely different person.

Talking through your concerns can help to improve your mood and quality of life, alleviating anxiety and depression. Alternatively, a chat about anything – big or small – especially something that makes us laugh, can serve as distraction from day to day problems and stresses and relieve any physical or psychological symptoms that you might be experiencing and helping you feel at ease.

Our client, Dave, discusses the true power of talking, in this video he put together after his second diagnosis.

“By me talking about it, it opens up an arena and all the anxiety that I can see in other people’s faces lifts away and suddenly it’s not this big taboo subject that we can’t talk about. And the by-product is that it will help me as a patient, managing stress.”

The following fantastic advice comes from ‘The Big C’ document from the Open University. A range of people who have been treated for cancer offer tips and ideas for people that don’t know what to say to someone who has been diagnosed.

Provide opportunities to talk

Nadine was treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She described how it is possible to provide opportunities to talk, in a way that lets the person with cancer be in control of the conversation:

“People can struggle with what to say, but you can start with something a little ambiguous. Not ‘have you got cancer?’ or ‘I’m sorry you’ve got cancer, and you lost your hair’. But start with an open question like ‘how are you?’, so people can open up, if they want to, or they can block or withdraw the question. That way you are in control. Because it can be exhausting. People want to help, but you don’t want to repeat yourself fifteen hundred times.”

Be an active listener

Many people emphasised the importance of being a good listener, and not interrupting. This was seen as being very important.

As Sandra highlighted, “Good listeners, they take the time. They show you with their body language. They let you finish your sentence. It’s your experience… They listen to you, and what you’ve got to say. They don’t have to provide answers.”

Get creative

Sometimes it can be hard for a person with cancer to communicate, because of the physical and mental effort it requires. But communication can take many forms, and simple things, like text messages can be helpful. Raid thought that people could be creative in the ways they chose to communicate.

“Communicating by phone can be very tiring. So people would do short calls or emails. People found their own ways of keeping in touch. I had a friend who would send silly jokes. It was her way of letting me know she was thinking of me.”

Be thoughtful and genuine

Some of the comments that people found particularly unhelpful included being told to “go to America for treatment” or to “try this diet”. Perhaps people do this because they don’t know what else to say, or they think they should provide solutions. It can be tempting to come up with suggestions, but what is more important is to be genuine and supportive, even if you know the conversation will be difficult. As Raid and others noticed, “people can ask, ‘How are you feeling now?’ …but people don’t really want to know too much, they’d rather you said you were fine, even if you’re not.”

Remembering that a person living with cancer is still your friend or loved-one is important. Try to communicate with them as much as you would with any other person; and remember that it is ok to admit that you don’t know what to say.

Being close to someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer can have a major impact on your life as well as theirs. It can be just as hard for you as it is for the person with the diagnosis. That’s why we offer support to the loved-ones of those living with cancer because we recognise that your emotions are just as important as the person with cancer.

We have carried out extensive research looking into the experiences of supporters of people living with cancer who come on our Living Well courses. We have tracked the impact of this course on supporters and have shown a positive improvement in people’s wellbeing 6 weeks after attending our Living Well course. You can find more information about this here.

If you are in need of more advice or support you can call our Helpline on 0303 3000 118 or email helpline@pennybrohn.org.uk and our team will be able to advise you on the services available for you.

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