How To Talk To A Cancer Patient (and Her Husband)


Few things make normally glib, sociable people  turn awkward like cancer does. Their smiles vanish from their face as soon as the word cancer leaves our lips. A brief uncomfortable silence occurs before they think of a question or a comment. During that all too brief moment, my wife and I cringe, wondering what unintentionally insensitive question or comment we’ll hear.

I’m here to say, relax. You being awkward doesn’t help us feel any better. You know what would make us feel better? Everyone acting normally. You may not run into me or my wife in the real world, but if you haven’t been already, you will certainly be touched by cancer at some point. I’m hoping this post will prepare you to be a more understanding friend or family member.

Cancer is not contagious: They’re not lepers. For cripes sake feel free to give them a hug and actually smile at them.  Radiation and chemotherapy don’t make them radioactive or give them superpowers. (I wish. She still can’t microwave food with her eyes and I still have to open all the jars) You taking a step back and having your face drop doesn’t make someone feel better. Ask about the treatment plan. Ask where they’re going for treatment. Offer to send a meal over. Maybe gift certificates for his and hers massages. Just don’t be afraid of it. We’re trying not to be and smiles are in short supply sometimes.

Picture courtesy my upper left arm.

Picture courtesy my upper left arm.

Only Tell Stories of Triumph:  Guess what? We don’t want to hear a story about your uncle who succumbed to cancer after a brave three year battle. Do you want to hear the likelihood of surviving a plane crash right before you leave for the airport? We don’t want to hear how tough the side effects from treatment were. My wife is not your uncle. Every cancer journey is unique. If you have stories of friends and family who have overcome the disease and are living happily, fine, we’ll take those.

Reach Out: Sometimes people undergoing treatment for cancer have to miss some time at work. Usually not because of the disease, but because of the treatment. Even if they have family around, they feel alone and isolated from their work peeps. Remind them that you haven’t forgotten them. Call, text, and post funny things on Facebook and tag them. Or ask when you can visit!

Cancer is not a death sentence: Do not ask “What’s the prognosis?” What you’re really saying is “Are you going to live?”  I’d love to hear my wife tearfully respond, “The doctor said I only have forty years left.” It’s her second time with cancer. There are millions and millions of people out there who successfully overcome cancer time and time again.

Hopefully this didn’t seem too flippant for such a serious topic, but guess what? People with cancer and their families don’t need you to put a pink ribbon magnet on your minivan or for you to run a 5K. They just need their friends and family to be who you’ve always been. Years ago before my wife had cancer the first time, I was the awkward, avoidant person, not knowing how to address the elephant in the room. The most supportive thing you can do for someone with cancer is be the same friend or supportive family member you were before they had cancer, because when the cancer has been beaten they’re still the same person they were, only stronger .  ~Phil

37 responses to “How To Talk To A Cancer Patient (and Her Husband)

  1. Yep, my mother had bowel cancer ten years ago and is an active, healthy 77 year old. Virtual hugs to you both!

  2. People need to hear these words! Well done! I love the line “. . . I only have 40 years left.”

  3. Thank you for this. It’s good to be normal! My step sister beat breast cancer twice and she’s 15 years cancer free now. Your wife will beat it too! That’s what I should have said earlier!

  4. I have a friend who had breast cancer many years ago. She leads an active life, living in Europe for half the year and traveling about. Another friend with ovarian cancer a few years ago is constantly on the go, climbing mountains, and traveling all over the world. She has tremendous energy. Yes, there is definitely hope!

  5. AMEN!! When my husband had cancer, family members did the “avoidance” routine. Maybe they felt if they didn’t see him, they didn’t need to address it. It’s the most important time to surround your family. My love to you both

  6. Love this post, Phil. It’s definitely an issue that needs highlighting and you did it in a great way……in your regular “Phil voice” that we’ve all come to love.

  7. Good job Phil. I think you helped some folks avoid cringe-worthy moments.

  8. Phil, this is the 2nd time today I’ve heard this same message and you’ve expressed it so well. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say, even when you’re the one in the middle of it.
    Like everything else we deal with in this life, a smile and a hug goes a long way 🙂

  9. This was so helpful, Phil! I’ve read only “What NOT to say” pieces–nothing like this. You should submit it to The Guardian (you’d have to do it anonymously or ask your wife on this one, wouldn’t you?).

    Here’s my one-cent contribution:

    1) A friend who went through massive radiation was told (a) chances of remittance were high, and (b) she’d not be able to have kids.

    She had kids and is decades older.

    2) The father of a co-worker/friend had bladder cancer. A doctor at a famous So. Cal. hospital well-known for excellent cancer care told him that there was nothing else to be done, by any doc, anywhere– that he “might as well go home and build a box.” [coffin]

    When the dad came home and told our friend, the son was PISSED. He insisted his dad get a 2nd opinion from a different famous So. Cal. hospital well-known for excellent cancer care. They performed surgery, plus either chemo or radiation–I forget now which–and the dad was still happy and alive years later.

    (3) In 1985, we had a new friend who had recently been told he had AIDS. I walked into a party he was hosting, put down my pot-luck dish, turned to him, and gave him a big hug. I still remember his heartfelt quiet “Thank you” to me.

    I used to say to my boys “My hug tank needs filling.” Nobddy on the planet who is not mean on purpose to others should be left with an empty hug tank.

  10. This needed to be said, Phil. I think people mean well, but in trying to relate, they tend to make it about themselves, or their experiences. I’m channeling all of my positive thoughts to you, and your wife. She’s beat it before, and she WILL beat it again!

  11. Cancer schmancer!

  12. The big “C”, which has gone down three generations on one side of our family. With my sister in law and brother within years both having major cancer treatment. I remember a conversation I had with our 6-year-old nephew as I walked him to school “Mum, has cancer hasn’t she!?”, “Yes, she does”. He did not need a long answer just confirmation, and we moved on to other things in life, such as school and playtime.
    Hopefully, your wife is okay now.

  13. I hear every word Phil! We are awkward beings though aren’t we! Best wishes 😊

  14. Good stuff, Phil. I hated the, “my grandmother’s sister’s cat had cancer too…” and the people who wanted more information about her diagnosis than we had who tried to corner me and ask questions just outside of her hearing. I hope and pray for perfect healing for your wife.

  15. Great advice, Phil. So often people seem to withdraw when someone says they have cancer. Letting people know you’re there for them is hugely supportive.

  16. Really important for people to know. Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts.

  17. Wonderful post–and I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with cancer. Having the insight from people living the experience makes such a big difference. I always want to be kind and thoughtful, but end up with my foot in my mouth. These kinds of posts and thoughtful advice help.

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