10 Blisteringly marvellous things to say when Cancer or other life-changing diseases are in the mix


Following on from my last post regarding what not to say to someone with cancer (or any other life-changing disease) the obvious continuation is what to say, so here it is folks.

  1. And the first thing I have to recommend is that in many ways there is no recommendation, no formulaic 6-point plan or a phrase book for cancer supporters that I can hyperlink you to. Of course, whatever approach you take needs to be individual to you, the person (and don’t forget they still are one) you’re talking to and their unique context. Sometimes just being careful about what’s coming out of your mouth is the best advice.

However, if you feel that’s a cop out then here’s a few suggestions to help you on your merry way.

2. What could I do that makes today better?

You’ll notice that this question is time bound and very specific. There’s a reason for this. Things change from day to day and once a cancer diagnosis is part of the context there’s a lot of short, medium and long term thinking and planning to do. Big decisions have to be made and big decisions are made for us and at times we can only cope with the here and now. What could I do to make today better is the perfect opener for suggestions, big and small to be made. Things that genuinely can make today a better day. This statement can shift a crappy day to a less crappy one and that’s got to be a good thing.

As I mentioned in my last post my response would be ‘Do the ironing’ and if you didn’t offer last year then the good news is that I’ll accept that offer now as a type of retrofit kindness. Please form an orderly queue.

ironing3. Would it work for you if I cooked dinner on Thursday?

When we can’t be arsed to think about cooking let alone doing it, we love you to say this. Particularly dinner, as the end of the day can be an excruciatingly tiring time. Don’t be offended if we don’t eat much and please don’t EVER suggest that our oven needs cleaning. Make an extra dish for the freezer ready for another day and label it. Take your lead from the person regarding whether you plan to eat with them or just leave them to it.

4. Nothing- just listen; take your clues and cues from them

Remember there are times that sitting in companionable silence is good for the soul, asks nothing of you and is restful. Awkward silence of course is not, but try not to fill silence with banal chitter chatter. If silence feels uncomfortable after a while, get up, find the ironing board and crumpled clothes and get on with it. In silence. Let me know when you’re done.

5. Thanks for telling me about it, I understand more now. What could I read/research to help me learn even more?

There’s so much *bumpf about especially regarding cancer that being well informed is essential. Most patients could be awarded a PhD in their cancer(s) and this can make us quote boring and condescending to you who know nothing! Sorry. Not sorry.

Finding out more information in a careful way can really help our discussions and reflections together and saves us having to repeat information over and over again; we get enough of that during medical appointments.

* Bumpf2

6. What’s been good? How can we enjoy/celebrate that?

Good things do happen in #cancerland We do complete treatments, we do go in to appointments roughly on time, we do find parking spaces (expect for The Churchill in Oxford), they do get the needle in first time, our drugs are approved and we do manage to iron the odd shirt.  When life is broken down into chunks of things that matter it’s a reason to celebrate, so help us acknowledge this.

7. Do you want to talk about it today?

Again, choice. So very important in terms of being treated as someone who still has a brain and may or may not want to chat about it. If the answer is no, don’t be offended. Give yourself a pat on the back because you’ve actually been incredibly empowering.

You’ll notice that thus far that most of these recommendations have all been questions. There’s a reason for this, we’ve lost so much control over a whole range of things that we want it back. By asking questions and waiting and acting upon our answers you’re helping us gain some sense of control back. Thank you for that.

8. You don’t need to reply to this email/card/text message…..

Fabulous. We love love love to hear from you. There’s nothing like knowing that you’re in someone’s thoughts, but Jeez it can get tiring responding or even knowing that you have a long list of people who you should respond to in the next few days. We really appreciate you letting us off the hook and giving us clearance to break the polite code of conduct just this once.


9. I apologise I haven’t been in touch, I’d like to make sure that it doesn’t stay that way

It’s never too late to rekindle genuine friendships and relationships. Make the effort and try. Be honest. Share your rationale and perspective in a grown up and responsible way. Don’t get stuck into a broken record technique of having this conversation over and over again, move forward in the way you’d like to have previously. Remember that relationships are like a savings bank account; you have to pay something in to have anything to withdraw.

10. Ask what you can do for their immediate carers and family members

Or as I like to call them ‘The Forgotten’. In my case I asked a couple of people to be on alert to support my closest family members, those who were mostly in the firing line of caring and supporting. But these carer’s get tired, anxious, fed up, worried and weary too. Sometimes having a night out or a quick cuppa with someone who is not so closely involved can be a cleansing exercise and provide a much needed boost and independent space to express things that don’t emotionally sit comfortably. Be brave when supporting The Forgotten, make sure they know that they’re not. You could even offer to do the ironing for them.

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