Talking with someone who has a serious illness can be a sticky situation. You want to offer help, comfort, and support, but don’t want to be intrusive or offensive. Like anything, there’s some etiquette to know before reaching out to a friend or family member.
Let me know if there’s something I can do
While you honestly mean it, this offer is especially vague. It may be uncomfortable for your friend to actually take you up on a favor because you haven’t really clarified what you mean by “something.”
If you are looking to offer help, be very specific. Offer to bring dinner and dessert on Tuesday, or pick up milk and eggs at the market later tonight. By offering something concrete, you let your friend know exactly how you can help while letting you both choose a time or situation that would be beneficial.
Oh, my aunt had cancer
….Or my grandma, my cousin, my dad, or my dog. It’s a common reaction to sympathize or personally connect with your friend’s situation, but it can very extremely hurtful if you do. It minimizes their conflict because you can’t really know how they are feeling, no matter who you knew with cancer. For a young patient, the connection between a grandmother experiencing the same type of cancer doesn’t connect well with their situation at all.
Instead, appreciate their unique situation. There isn’t any way you can know how they are feeling, even if you do know someone with the same diagnosis. Choose to connect in other ways by still spending time together like you did before a diagnosis. Let your friend know that this illness doesn’t change your friendship.
But you are looking great!
Even though this may be true, it doesn’t mean your friend is truly feeling great. Having a serious illness takes a severe emotional, physical, and psychological toll on a person, and feeling like they need to look strong and brave makes it that much more difficult.
Letting your friend know that you can be there to cry or be upset with lets them avoid the need to put on a “looking great” face. Sometimes, your friend will need someone to just be sad with, and being there in any way you can is great way to support someone.
At least they caught it early
Why you think you are being positive about the situation, the reality of a serious diagnosis is still there. An online community of young cancer patients discusses how frustrating it is to hear this. Yes, the cancer may be in its early stages, but it is still cancer. The treatments are still difficult. This whole situation is still overwhelming.
There’s really no way around this phrase, just avoid it completely. Take cues from your friend about what’s appropriate to talk about. For some, there’s a need to avoid all cancer related topics: respect that wish. For others, you may be needed to hear all about the details and emotions of this trying time and help your friend talk through the procedures.
Everything happens for a reason
You may believe this mentality, but it doesn’t change the situation. Hearing that cancer happened for some unidentified reason can be extremely disheartening to hear for your sick friend.
Be supportive in other ways. Don’t push alternative treatment options, religion, or unwanted advice. Respect physical boundaries, and don’t be offended if your friend declines your invitations or offers to help out. Just knowing that there is someone out there who is offering to listen, or help can be comforting.