Cancer PixabayI used to be tongue-tied and incredibly uncomfortable when someone said, “I’ve got some tough news to share.”

Compassion welled up inside of me but my words just sounded trite, awkward and maybe even insensitive.

It’s never easy to hear bad news. But as with most things in life, experience and practice help us grow.

I’ve had more practice than I would have liked at being both the receiver and sharer of bad news and it’s helped me to get better at being there for others.

Here’s why.

I’ve had cancer. Twice. Breast cancer in 2001 and melanoma (of my scalp) in 2014. Telling friends and family about my diagnoses was hard. I didn’t want pity. I didn’t want them to worry. And I especially didn’t want to hide my health situation from the people I most cared about.

My awareness was heightened each time I shared my news. When some reactions made me squirm, I was reminded that I haven’t always reacted in the best way either. This helped me have compassion when others’ words weren’t the ones I most needed to hear.

Here are five ways people responded to my cancer news.

1. Gotta Go: One friend actually said to me, “I’m sorry sweetie. Well, gotta go.” It felt as if she was afraid she’d catch cancer by talking with me too long. Some people may feel so blindsided by our news that their first instinct is to flee. I learned not to count them out. They may resurface with compassion at a later time.

2. You Should Hear About: No sooner did I get out the words, “I was just diagnosed with melanoma,” than one friend launched into an entire story about someone else’s treatment and how it was so much worse than what I would have to endure. This reminded me how vital it is to stay present and listen.

3. I’m So Worried About You: While in theory it might feel good to know a friend was concerned, there was something about the severity and tone of these words that made me more fearful and concerned for my future. Not helpful!

4. Oh, You’ll be Fine: With a sway of her hand another friend seemed to dismiss my entire situation by saying, “Oh, you’ll be fine.” How the heck does she know that? I’m all for being positive but her dismissive attitude sugar-coated my reality a little too much.

5. How Did You Know: Nearly every person asked, “How did you know you had it?” This question has two problems. It shifts the conversation away from the person needing care and can also cause great discomfort since people may not want to rehash the emotional trauma of learning devastating news. So, tread carefully. On the other hand, this was one question I didn’t mind since it ended up sending many of my friends to see their dermatologists!

What kind of responses helped the most?

The best responses are simpler than I ever imagined. It was the people who listened, gave me a hug or held my hand, and thanked me for letting them know what I was going through.  They would usually follow their listening by asking, “So, how are you feeling?” They stayed with me emotionally. They didn’t run off. They didn’t dismiss my fears. They didn’t ramp up my worry. They were fully present and I felt cared for and loved.

I’m grateful for having so many people in my life who are able to be fully present.

It’s likely someone one day will tell you they have cancer (or some other devastating news). My hope is this list will help you avoid these pitfalls and choose how you want to respond.

Before having cancer I didn’t know how to respond to someone else’s trouble. One of the gifts from my experience is now I do.

I kept a gratitude journal during my treatment and some days the kindness I received from others was what I wrote about. I often thought, “Maybe I could learn something here.” And I’m glad that I did.

So, I’d say that by being fully present and listening deeply we can help others when they are facing a difficult journey. What would you say?

If you’re struggling with how or whom to tell others of your diagnosis, this New York Times article can help: Whom Do You Tell When You’re Sick? Maybe Everyone You Know


3 thoughts on “Five Ways NOT to Respond When Someone Says “I Have Cancer”

  1. This is very timely! Someone actually just shared some news about the health of their partner today and I hate to say it, but I had no idea how to respond! This is very helpful, I’m going to go back to that person with a message of greater support. Thank you!

    1. So happy to hear that this was helpful to you, Meredith. Sorry about your friend and I know you’ll go back and say just the right thing. Nice that we have a second chance in these kinds of situations.

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