Catholic Courier

Posted: September 6, 2016

CNS photo by Rick Musacchio

Responding to cancer diagnoses

By Jennifer Burke/Catholic Courier

NEWARK -- What do you say when a loved one tells you he or she has cancer?

If you can't imagine how you would respond to this news -- or if you know you've responded poorly to such news in the past -- you're not alone.

"People don't know what to say sometimes," remarked Pat Fyles, a breast-cancer survivor and a member of St. Michael Parish in Newark. "They're at a loss for words and they're upset because this is their family member or good friend."

It's quite common for people to be unsure what to say when they find out family members, loved ones or even acquaintances have been diagnosed with cancer, according to Kim McMahon, communications manager for the American Cancer Society. This question is so common, in fact, that the American Cancer Society has put together a list of suggested responses for people to use when they learn of another's cancer diagnosis (see box on this page).

There's no one right or wrong way for an individual to respond to the news of another's cancer diagnosis, but the relationship between the two may help determine the most appropriate response, Fyles said.

"If it's somebody close to you, expressing more emotion and being tearful is OK. Being upset is OK, because it's upsetting that somebody you know and care about has to take this walk. It's not an easy thing to do," she said.

Upon hearing of a loved one's diagnosis, many people try to hide their sadness because they don't want to upset or depress the newly diagnosed person, Fyles said. They may even try to convince the person not to worry and assure the newly diagnosed that he or she will be fine. While these people undoubtedly have the best intentions, their efforts are misguided and actually inflict hurt on a person already reeling from an unexpected diagnosis, she added.

"I think the wrong thing to say, in my mind, is, 'Oh, you're going to be fine. They've made so many advances. Don't worry about it,'" Fyles said.

Such a dismissive response not only fails to acknowledge the very real feelings the patient may be experiencing, but it also could provide false hope, she said. There are many different types of cancers and treatments, and each person responds to his or her own disease and treatments in a different way.

"Every journey is different. Nobody knows how somebody is going to react to chemotherapy or radiation," Fyles said.

For this reason, Fyles advises people not to respond to news of a cancer diagnosis by sharing stories of other people they've known who had cancer. People also should not criticize or judge a patient's decisions regarding treatment.

"There are some people who choose not to do treatment, and you have to respect that. Even though you might want to shake them, you have to respect their wishes," she said.

So what should you say to someone who tells you he or she has cancer?

"These days when people tell me they've been diagnosed with cancer, I tend to say to people, 'I'm sorry you have to walk on this journey,'" Fyles said.

Fyles also tries to send notes or cards to the patients periodically, just to let them know she's thinking about them and wishing the best for them.

"I had people that would send me a little thinking-of-you card or a note every once in a while. To me that always meant a lot, to know these people are thinking about you and they're on your side," she noted.

Friends or family members also might offer to bring cancer patients meals or gift cards to the grocery stores they shop at, or they might offer to drive the patients to treatments or watch their children while the patients attend appointments, she added.

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The American Cancer Society has put together a list of ideas for people who are unsure of how to respond to the news of another's cancer diagnosis. The list also is available at www.cancer.org.

* "I'm not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care."

* "I'm sorry to hear that you are going through this."

* "How are you doing?"

* "If you would like to talk about it, I'm here."

* "Please let me know how I can help."

* "I'll keep you in my thoughts."