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10 things to say to a cancer patient (and 10 things not to blurt out)

I’m not normally a whiner. Oh sure, you might hear me complain about the traffic, the weather and how there’s been nothing good on TV since “Emily in Paris” ended last season. But these days, whining has become something of an art.

Cancer can do that to you. 

I’ve been a member of the Big C Club for a while now. I’ve learned how to function each day and take soul-enriching walks, enjoying nature’s surroundings while staying well aware of the contradiction between the thriving vegetation and plant life, and the blight and destruction going on inside my own body.

The good news is that I have been getting treated at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, one of the top cancer centers in the country. Patients travel from all over the world to get access to the stellar doctors and nurses on staff.

What I’ve learned

I’ve learned that chemotherapy does kill cancer cells, but also annihilates other cells in the body, including the ones that produce hair. So I’ve managed to live with wigs, hats and sudden winds that often blow those hats and wigs right off, leaving me looking a lot like Stanley Tucci, but without the garlic Parmesan linguine.

I’ve learned that no one likes to be around misery and melancholy, so presenting a cheerful, peppy facade is essential. This is remarkably energy-draining, which means any outing with friends often ends with a quiet session in a comfortable chair with reruns of “Happy Days.”

I’ve also learned a thing or two about the way other people deal with those of us going through what is one of the most challenging times of our lives. 

There are those who seem to intuitively know just what to say. I call these people, “Those who know what to say.” There are three of them. Then there are friends who prefer to live in a grand State of Denial. These people face the giant elephant in the room by not acknowledging that anything is actually wrong. They keep the conversation light, current and fun, which I always appreciate, but they ignore the reality right in front of them, which I never appreciate. 

Some see this taxing experience as a “cancer journey,” as if it’s a jaunt through a theme park Walt Disney never envisioned, highlighted by deep discussions with other patients, personal revelations and satisfying introspection. They encourage patients like me to see the “upsides,” such as savoring each moment and appreciating the wonders of the universe.

Other people, I’ve found, are in need of advice when it comes to finding things to say to a friend dealing with cancer. So I’m offering some useful tips — along with suggestions detailing what NOT to say to someone who is going through this.

Things to say

Hope you are feeling well.

We are thinking about you.

Would you like to go for a walk?

I’m heading to the mall — want to come?

You know I’m here for you.

Anytime you want to talk, I’m listening.

Do you need a ride to the doctor’s?

Love your hat!

Do you have any photos of your kids/grandkids/dog?

I baked cookies. Can I drop some off?

Not to say

How was your last scan?

How long do people usually live with this?

How do you deal with this?

I take Xanax. What are you on?

I know this is nothing like YOU have, but I’ll probably need surgery on my knee.

What are your doctors saying?

I heard about a new treatment in South America/Mexico/New Zealand.

Is that a wig?

How long will you be on this treatment?

I know how you feel — I’ve been having problems with my neck.

Effectively pulling off difficult, often awkward conversations is no easy feat. It might take some preparation or even a bit of role-playing. But with a little effort, it can be done. Know someone who needs your support?

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