Is "Don't worry" the best thing you can say to a cancer patient?
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
A cancer patient hears a lot of “Everything’s going to be fine…don’t worry” The reaction is a reflex. "Don't worry" is intentioned to bring hope and comfort to the patient. However it probably lowers the comforter's anxiety more than it does the patient's. The latter is probably thinking ”I have cancer, how can I not worry? Do you not get it?”
If the word cancer doesn’t bring worry, you're probably still in denial. Every cancer patient will have worries. The immediate worry on diagnosis is " Cancer? Am I going to die? now ..later? ” Even when the prognosis is good, the treatments demand a sizable commitment of time, emotion, energy and money. There’s suddenly a lot to get done and everyday life is put on the back burner. Cancer treatment is probably the toughest time in an individual and family's life. Even after completing treatment for early stage cancer, the worry is ”Is it going to be back?” In advanced metastatic disease, the worry is ”How much longer do I have? Will my family be ok?”
So separating “worry” from "cancer" is a bit of an unreasonable expectation. Don't deny the worry, help them live through it, be there in the journey.
Most people have no idea what the right thing to say to a cancer patient would be
“I really don’t know what to say” is an acceptable response. "Do you want to talk about it?" is less intrusive and gives them a chance to talk if they want to. If you have the privilege to hear their story then listen, be patient, be there and allow them to cry if they must. Keep it real, acknowledge what they're going through and avoid unsolicited medical advice. ( There's always someone out there claiming to cure cancer with tomato juice)
Its a more realistic dialogue if it sound like "I expect there will be some good days and some not so good days ahead, I'm here for you through it" "I'm sure the time ahead is going to be challenging, but we'll put our strengths together to face it"
Another sentence that can be replaced is " Let me know if there's anything I can do, anything you need". There's probably nothing in that moment they imagine they'd call on you for. Its more sincere if you're offering ideas on what specific tasks you can help with "Can I arrange to pick up the kids from school?" " I could watch your dog when you're in the hospital" "Can I accompany you to your appointment?"
Lorry Hope has a written a great book “Help me live” that talks about what to say and what not to say to a cancer patient . Strongly recommend it to anyone looking for more advice on the topic and being literate in empathy.