Acknowledge their pain. It’s an age-old, time-tested way to bring comfort those who are suffering. When I was going through the cancer grinder, I directly experienced the healing power of feeling seen. And conversely, the distressing effect of not feeling seen. This post will unpack the meaning of these words and offer concrete examples of what to say and not say.

Let me start with a simple analogy. When babies experience pain or discomfort, they cry. When we pick them up and acknowledge their feelings, they calm down. Similarly, when I was going through the devastation of cancer, when people acknowledged my suffering, I felt seen. And when they did not, I felt unseen.

As human beings, we largely interact with other people through language, let’s thus explore how words can comfort, or discomfort, people living with devastating illnesses.

3 Things to Not Say to a Cancer Patient

When I told people about my cancer, the most common responses I received were the following:

  1. They jumped into fixing mode and gave me advice on how to beat cancer
  2. They jumped into coaching mode and gave me a positive pep talk
  3. They shared a story about a relative who had cancer and/or died.

Although these responses stemmed from a genuine desire to helpful, they made me feel worse. Why? Because I didn’t need to be fixed or coached; I simply needed to feel seen. To have my suffering be witnessed and acknowledged by another human being. To hear, “I am sorry you are going through this. Would you like to tell me more?” Or “Where does it hurt?” But strangely, these questions were rarely asked.

Instead, I received countless lectures on how to beat cancer from people who never had cancer. (Very seldom asking if I needed advice, or what I was already doing to beat cancer). I was given endless pep talks, urging me to be positive, be strong, have faith, look at the bright side, keep cancer out of my mind, etc. Strangely, instead of comforting me, these remarks dispirited me and made me feel unseen.

I listened to many stories about people’s relatives who had cancer. A large number of people believed that sharing these stories was a way to empathize and show me that they understood what I was going through. It didn’t feel like this to me. They often prefaced their stories with: “My so-and-so had cancer. I know all about cancer”. I still cringe when I hear these words from someone who never had cancer. First, there are more than a hundred types of cancer. Second, every cancer story is unique. Give cancer patients the gift of hearing their story. It will go a long way in making them feel seen (and heard).

Listen Generously

Last spring, I attended a meditation retreat with an esteemed Buddhist monk. We had met before and developed a friendship. He knew about my cancer, and I was looking forward to sharing more in person. To my surprise, our first conversation veered into him telling me about a friend of his who had cancer! I listened respectfully but was disappointed inside. Later on, I reflected that sharing my disappointment with him would be a chance to untangle a challenge that puzzles many cancer patients. If one person had the skills to help me untangle this, it was him. Our second conversion went like this.

  • Me: When I tell people about my cancer, they often shift the conversation to a relative of theirs who had cancer. I wish I could share my story instead of hearing about someone else who is not in the room.
  • HimWhy didn’t you tell me? If you had told me, I would have immediately stopped and listened to you.
  • MeIt’s hard for me to ask for permission to share. I can do it with other things. But with cancer, I find it hard.
  • HimI understand.
  • MeI never get a chance to share my story because people always rush to tell me about their relatives’ cancer stories. I want to wave my arms and say, “Hi, I have cancer too. I wish you could see me.” But I don’t stand up and wave. Instead, I just sink into disappointment.
  • HimI understand; it’s hard.
  • MeAs cancer patients, we hear such stories all the time.
  • HimReally? Is it common for cancer patients?
  • MeYes!
  • HimWow! Thank you for opening my eyes! I was not aware of it.

His responses startled me. He responded with such humility and openness. A testimony to his far-reaching meditation practice. Even though it didn’t start out that way, I felt deeply seen and validated by our second exchange.

Acknowledge Their Suffering

Going through cancer and hearing about the experience of other cancer patients magnified for me how perplexing it is for those who’ve never had cancer to offer emotional support to cancer patients. A cancer patient recently commented on my blog how much he’d wanted his friends to see the pain in his eyes, but mostly they didn’t. Like many cancer patients, this patient had a deep need for his suffering to be witnessed and acknowledged, but he couldn’t get his need met.

This gap doesn’t stem from a lack of desire to be helpful. Most people want to help. But rather from not understanding the cancer experience. In my highly popular post Inside the Mind of a Cancer Patient I explained how the opacity of the cancer experience often results in misconceptions and hurt feelings. (You may want to read it if you haven’t already). It’s hard to comfort someone going through an alien illness. The best approach is humility, as the monk above beautifully demonstrated, and acknowledging the pain of cancer patients.

When we pause and acknowledge the suffering of another, we bear witness to their experience. This act in itself is healing.

I hope this post was useful. I am sharing my experience with deep openness with the hope to help others. Help cancer patients, by giving voice to their unseen suffering. Help caregivers, by revealing the inner experience of cancer so they can be better empowered to comfort those they seek to help.

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26 thoughts on “How to Talk to Someone With Cancer

  1. Sylvia, thank you for sharing. It is indeed an eye opener and we look forward to reading, sharing and learning. There are moments a patient is so quiet a caregiver is left wondering what to say, whether to say anything at all and or end up saying things to just fill the void. Now we know better what not to say, to say or not to say. Be Blessed

  2. This was so helpful! Thank you for sharing.

    What you wrote is so important because people who do not have cancer really don’t know what to say. When they care about the person they want to be of support and be there for them and they don’t know what to say. Sometimes it is by listening only. Like you said letting the person tell their story. I used your words “ does it hurt?” today with my friend who has breast cancer and I would have never thought or dare asking that but she opened up.

    Bravo for your thoughtful writing. Your message is very important.

  3. Thanks Sylvie, very well stated and something that I have experienced as well. I think all who read this will find it helpful.

  4. Gosh, where to begin! I love reading your insights, all so true and validating for me…and I hope validating for you! As a 22 year fighter of ovarian cancer currently in the fight of my life, the struggles of those around me to try and know the right thing to say or do is enormous and very tiring for all. Thank you for putting into words the frustration and aloneness we feel even when surrounded by lots of love. I often tell people that cancer is a full time job AND I don’t want people to understand or “get” it-what It is like , because that means they have “it”or a close loved one does. Im not wishing this journey on anyone! I think human nature is to fix it or at least make us feel better when I find there is really very little that will. This now includes two incredible medical teams I deal with, they are clueless on how to let me be heard. Reading your words was
    A welcome respite for my mind today…thank you!

    1. Thank you, Jana, for your heartfelt comment. Reading your comment made my day yesterday. It is precisely why I write. To put into words the frustrations, isolation, and devastation that cancer patients feel during their journey that are often unknown or inarticulated. I’m sorry about all the pain you are going through at your young age. May you be held in kindness. Thanks for writing.

  5. Well said, Sylvie. It’s amazing the power that acknowledging someone’s suffering can have. Wise words.
    Thank you,

  6. Since reading your post, I am acutely aware of what not to say and how to engage in compassionate listening. Thank you, Sylvie.

  7. Dear Sylvie. Thank you for this illuminating blog. I have felt anxious in meeting up with a friend who has been diagnosed with life threatening disease. What do I say? How can I be a support and express my love and concern. Your comments are just what I needed. I am so appreciative. carol

  8. Your blog demonstrates humility, openness, and a willingness to listen can allow redemption when we as fellow humans or health professionals make a mistake. Thank you.

  9. Or, even worse, they start listing all the people they know who DIED of cancer…. because we all need “you’re gonna die” shoved at us – as if it isn’t bouncing around at the back of our skulls already…

    1. Yes, I’ve heard that too. It’s disheartening; isn’t it? I know people mean well. Yet, they often say things that are more deflating than comforting. (Often without realizing it). That’s why bringing light to this topic is so important. It took a lot of courage to publish this post. But when I read comments like yours – and from others who write to me – I am comforted that this is the right thing to do. Thank you for writing. I’m sorry you’ve been hurt so many times. Know that you are heard and that your suffering is shared. Warmest wishes.

  10. Hi, thanks for the article. I see the list of three things not to say, do you have a list of things TO say? My aunt was just diagnosed (sorry, I don’t mean to break rule #1), but I want to make sure to be there for her in the best way I can, and feel like I don’t know what to say to make her feel seen. Thanks so much and all the power to you writing about this. It really gets people thinking! <3

    1. Hi Amanda, thanks for writing. First of all, I’m sorry about your aunt’s diagnosis. Second, you are are not breaking any rule by asking a question.

      As for DOs, here are some words that would have made my pain feel seen:
      – “I am so sorry you are going through this.”
      – “I can’t imagine how hard this must be.”
      – “That must be hard.” /* REPEAT every time she shares something painful */

      The most important is that you LISTEN generously and refrain from interrupting, judging, fixing, coaching, etc.

      1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I will do those, but yes, you are so right, the most important is to just listen. Thank you again!

  11. I can’t agree more. I wish people had asked me how I felt, instead of just passing on info and advice to me. Most people are not comfortable dealing with feelings.

    1. Thank you for reading my post, Judy. I’m glad it resonated with you and offered some validation for your feelings. It’s not easy being a cancer patient. Sending you comfort.

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