Cancer Blog

Cancer blog

Cancer Etiquette – How to talk about 'IT'

Mar 19, 2020

We all know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer and let’s face it, we all struggle with knowing how to react, what to say and how to talk about ‘it’, often because cancer is something we fear will happen to us. There’s also often a sense of awkwardness that surrounds a cancer diagnosis that many of us don’t deal with particularly well.

At the end of the day, unlike the other etiquette rules, there are no rules – only suggestions and tips. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is the person with cancer is the same person you knew the day before you found out they had cancer.

Talk to them in the same way you would have before you knew the diagnosis and importantly, talk to them exactly how you would like to be talked to if you were in their position. I still remember when dad was diagnosed with cancer and it seemed as though some people lost all basic etiquette and said the strangest things. While in some cases it may have been as a result of ignorance, we were hardly in the head space to educate other people.

So, here’s a few suggestions on the do’s and don’ts that might help you:

  • Don’t ignore the elephant in the room – acknowledge something has happened but don’t instantly assume it’s terminal.
  • A big no-no is offering treatment advice or bombarding the patient with alternative cancer cures or therapies. Equally, don’t mock any treatment option the patient is looking at – it’s their cancer, leave it to them and their medical team.
  • Remember that no one deserves cancer so health history isn’t relevant. Dad was a smoker, but it was wrong that he got lung cancer. No one needs anyone tracking their health history at such a stressful time to find the cause.
  • Don’t tell graphic stories of others you know who have had cancer, however well meaning. Everyone’s diagnosis, treatment and prognosis is personal to them, and talking about your friend or colleague who got cancer and is now fine, may seem like a positive thing to say, but cancer is a tough diagnosis and other people’s stories may not be helpful.
  • As a friend, offer tangible solutions rather than asking “is there anything I can help with”. Drop around that baking, or offer to take their child to an afterschool activity or on the school run. Sometimes people find it difficult to ask for help, so just step in an put yourself in their shoes and think about what you would need help with. If they really don’t need help, chances are they will tell you.
  • Do listen and do laugh – there’s something about laughter that makes people feel good and that includes cancer patients.

At the end of the day, people with cancer want what everyone else wants – respect, love, and care. They also don’t want cancer to dominate every aspect of their life all the time, and doing something normal with them, unrelated to their cancer journey, can give them breathing space from what they are facing. Equally, sometimes the most valuable thing you can say is an honest and simple expression of care.