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Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Life has proven challenging for many in my various circles of life. 

How many of your friends lately have been diagnosed with cancer?

I've had my own run-in's with cancer.
It's important to choose your words carefully when speaking to a cancer patient. 

Though you probably mean well, it's all too easy to accidentally hurt someone.

I was walking down the hospital hall with my mother when another cancer patient had a "friend" 

come up and rub her stubby head, saying, "Your hair looks great like this."

I had to restrain Mother from using her cane as a rectal thermometer on the patient's "friend."

 Any comment that calls attention to hair loss or a change in hair color or texture or a wig due to chemotherapy is wiser to avoid.  

Those things are usually a devastating outward sign of being different and sick to the patient.


1. “How unfair. You must be so mad.”

                These words validate their feelings and hopefully makes them feel understood. 

Misery does love company. 

Misery does not always love the positive spin on tragic life events such as “You are strong. You will get through this.”   

When you are scared, you do not feel very strong at all.

2. Avoid asking “How are you feeling?”

                You want them to know that you care, but cancer patients get asked that all the time, and they get quickly tired of that question.   

And probably they are not feeling so great, and the question only reinforces that.

3. Be specific in your desire to help:

                “Is there anything I can do to help?" is too broad.   

Instead how about something like: 

"I'd like to bring you dinner. Would Tuesday or Wednesday night be better?" 

If you can't bring the person dinner, maybe you could buy groceries, 

take care of his or her kids one afternoon or give the person a ride to treatment. 

If there's a spouse or friend in charge of logistics, ask that person what you can do.

4. Before you speak ask yourself - 

"Is this a comment about me or is it a comment that would be helpful to the patient?"

                Don’t say something that would make you feel good, but something that might uplift the specific individual you are speaking to.

                "God doesn't give you more than you can handle."

This might be of comfort if the person is one of faith. 

But do you really know how the person is feeling spiritually at the moment?

5. Avoid saying “I know how you feel.”

                No, you don’t.   

Not even if you’ve survived a cancer experience.  Instead stay focused on the patient's needs and concerns.

                This includes telling the cancer patient about Aunt Maude’s cancer ordeal – especially if it had a fatal outcome.

6. According to Barbara L. Andersen, PhD, a researcher and professor of psychology, 

Two of the best things to say are easy: 

"I'm sorry you're ill" and "I'm thinking of you." 

                In fact, sometimes gestures speak louder than words.

 For instance, sending flowers or visiting with your friend’s favorite flowers or watching TV with them can offer comfort. 

If the friend has a garden they can no longer maintain, 

coming over periodically and pruning the garden as they sit in a chair and chat with you would be nice.

Every cancer patient has a different opinion and experience, of course, and many know that you do mean well.

7. If the person loves a specific style of music,

 bringing them the latest album of their favorite artist may say more than your words could.

Most of you are writers.  You are inventive.  

Just use some of that creativity in seeing the world as your ill friend is seeing it at the moment, 

and you will come up with what to say and do.  

My prayers and thoughts are with all of you out there struggling with crises that have enveloped you. 

May all of you find that peace in the center of your storm.


  1. A specific gift or act would speak a lot more than something general. And I certainly wouldn't know how someone felt.
    Wise advice Roland, from one who knows.

  2. Alex:
    Does any of us truly know the turmoil in another's heart? Best to err on the side of caution and direct our efforts with love and compassion, right? :-)

  3. Oh yes. And the same applies for talking to the bereaved.
    I am sorry is the best thing you can say I have found (and a poor substitute for doing something).

  4. As you say, it is easy to say the wrong thing when attempting to reach for the right one. It is particularly difficult if the person you know with cancer doesn't live close to you. You cannot circumvent ill chosen words by positive actions. All you have are words. That said, this is still a post everyone should read... because pretty much everyone knows someone with cancer.

    Sending positive energy your way as you deal with your illness.

  5. Roland this is one of the best blog posts I've read in quite some time. I always find myself struggling with what to say. I have bookmarked this post and I will refer back to this in the future. Thank you sir.

  6. Thank you. For the simplicity and honesty of your words.

  7. Excellent post, Roland, about a touchy topic. A lot of people don't know what to say to comfort others. Just think what would comfort you in your darkest hour.

    I can't tolerate those who want to tell stories of people they know in similar situations and or worse, motivational sayings. When the skin is raw, this is salt.

  8. My best friend from college just lost both breasts to cancer. It is wide-spread epidemic that we know is related to our food and all the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis. Thanks for the post, and your quote above it is totally her.

  9. What a wise and compassionate post, Roland. Thank you for pointing out what we can do for people who are hurting, and what we definitely shouldn't say.

    I love how your mother wanted to make that cane a rectal thermometer (great description!). She sounds like a solid, funny lady. And you're a good son.

  10. Hi Roland - the most important thing is they are still the same, they're your friend, your family .. they want to see you and hear from you ... they want you to be there with them - when and as often as you can, as often as appropriate ...

    Take care - Hilary

  11. Sorry, my friends, for being so tardy. I worked 11 hours straight last night, driving 300 miles, and taking over for TWO co-workers with four times the usual workload! Whew!

    Elephant's Child:
    You're right: sometimes words are anemic but heartfelt gestures ring true.

    Sometimes all we can hope is that our backlog of shared friendship will color our words with memories of past actions of kindness. Thanks for thinking of me.

    Thanks. Sometimes I wonder if my posts mean anything to anybody. Your words made me feel validated. Thanks again. :-)

    I worked hard to be true and honest and hopefully helpful to those seeking to be true friends.
    Thanks for thinking I might have done well. :-)

    Exactly. If you cannot help, please do not hurt! Hearing about Aunt Maude does not smooth away any fears, right?

    My own best friend is struggling with breast cancer that has spread. We live in fearful times, don't we?

    Thanks for appreciating Mother. She was a source of love and laughter for me ... she left friends in her wake as others leave footprints.

    How wise of you: they are still our friends -- just going through a storm. We should talk with them as we always have. :-)

  12. And please don't tell a cancer patient how you cured your cancer with herbal remedies. This happened to my husband recently.And then there was that dumb doctor in the ER, at UCLA no less, who insinuated that my husband must be an alcoholic since he has liver cancer. Or so he sounded to me anyway.

    When I had cancer, I really didn't care what people said, but I get furious with dumb comments about my husband's cancer and the treatment he will need to survive this. Apparently some people are against transplants for religious reasons, which I didn't know, but please keep those concerns to yourselves as well.

    We have appreciated a fabulous dinner sent by friends, a nephew driving my husband when he needed it, two of my husband's brothers offering any help needed, anything at all.

    And also all of our friends, and that includes my blogger friends, who are keeping in touch regularly, just checking in to see how we are doing. Plus some people here in the canyon I only knew briefly before, who have offered to go to the store,offered to help around our house, invited me to come over to talk, and who have given me hugs.

  13. Also, Roland, I hope you are doing OK. I thought about you while I wrote the comment, but then I got lost in my own concern. A great post, thank you.

  14. Inger, I was in the hospital once with a liver problem and a doctor I didn't even know came in the room and shouted at me that I needed to get myself to Alcoholics Anonymous. I was appalled and embarrassed to the point that I didn't know what to do or say. I rarely drink. I kind of wish I had filed charges against him for violating my privacy because everyone could hear him, but it was just too difficult when I was so sick. Anyway, I really relate to the foolish things some people say because I have heard them, too, but I do not have cancer.


  15. Inger and Janie:
    Both of you have inspired my next post. Another all night shift at the blood center has me late again. Sorry for the delay! :-(