The Dos and Don’ts of Interacting With Cancer Patients

Photo by Laughlin Elkind

I know it’s hard. Someone you love — or maybe even just a colleague you sort of know — gets sick. Not just any old kind of sick, but really sick. The kind of sick you can only imagine. You want to say or do something but you don’t really know how or what.

Here’s a list of some Dos and Don’ts I’ve experienced along with a few tips to help you know you’re doing it right. Let me also start by saying that if you’ve done any of the “don’ts” to me, I am in no way offended. I know that everyone had the best of intentions and I love that you reached out. Period. I’m not looking for — nor do I need — any apologies. So shut it!

Also, this ain’t gospel. There are exceptions to everything so, after reading this and it still feels right, it probably is.

1. Don’t ask “How are you feeling?”

Yes. This is a very nice question. It’s well intentioned and — chances are — you ask because you genuinely want to know. However, cancer patients get asked this question on practically a daily basis. Then they are faced with two options. 1) Act like everything is okay and say something along the lines of, “Oh, I’m gettin’ by alright.” Or 2) Tell the truth and depress the shit out of Tony on his birthday or make Kaitlin cry at her sister’s baby shower. Instead ask, “How’s your day/week going?” This question is subjective and leaves the survivor a few more options for telling the truth without making Susan run to put sunscreen on. You can experiment with other questions, too. “See any good movies lately?” is also particularly good.

2. Do follow through.

If you say you’re going to do something for a cancer patient. Even if it’s a small thing. Follow through on it. Often times survivors spend a lot of time at home—alone. It give us time to think and reflect. No matter how hard we try, it’s tough not to think about the food that Clarence promised to prepare or the book that Sarina said she’d bring by.

3. Do keep plans whenever possible.

Things do come up. And cancer patients — like everybody else — are either understanding about that or not. However, it can significant take time for someone in treatment to make themselves ready for company. It can be a fair amount of effort — from putting on pants to cleansing the bathroom of the unsightly horrors from the night before. Try to make sure that this effort isn’t wasted by canceling at the last minute.

4. Don’t Pop-in.

For all the reasons in “Don’t change plans,” pop-ins can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for a survivor. It’s my personal opinion that this goes for people in general and not just cancer patients.

5. Do just do something nice.

Other than “How are you feeling?” “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” is the second most common thing that cancer patients hear. Most of us are too nice or too shy to call someone up and ask for something basic. One of the best things you can do for someone who’s sick is just say, “I’d really love to mow your lawn, can I come by tomorrow and make that happen?” Or “Hey, I’m going to the grocery store tomorrow. If you give me a list, I’ll pick some stuff up for you.”

6. Don’t mention your friend’s, dad’s, aunt’s, or your own disease (unless it really relates).

We’re sorry that your friend had a disease that is somewhat tangentially related to our disease. It’s great that your dad beat it, and we’re delighted that your aunt cured her disease with oleander tea. However, we just don’t want to hear about it. Yes, this is the way the people relate to one another. However, chances are each cancer patient is unique and doesn’t want to be dumped into a box with all the other people you know who have cancer. Or worse, we don’t want to have to explain to you how our life-changing procedure was not, in fact, similar to your minor appendectomy.

7. Do make an effort…and then try again.

Isolation can be a real problem for cancer patients. Suddenly there’s this whole list of activities in which you can’t participate. However, that list may change from day to day. Sometimes you may feel social and other times you might not. I think that when folks do reach out and find that the person in treatment is too ill to hang out, they make a mental note of it and decide to wait until the survivor gives the “all clear.” So, while your friends with cancer might pass on an activity today, don’t stop inviting them unless they tell you otherwise.

8.Don’t feel like you have to say anything at all.

When people hear for the first time that you have cancer, there’s a tendency to get nervous and of fill the air with noise. It’s a natural response to not knowing what to say — that is — to say anything and everything to avoid the awkwardness of feeling real emotions. This can be frustrating to cancer patients because really, they are just telling you because they think you ought to know. Not because they are looking for support, or anything from you. It’s okay to say, “Wow. I don’t really know what to say right now.” Or simply, “Holy crap. That is really shitty.” That will probably resonate with a cancer patient far better than anything that pops out of your frantic and fumbling mouth.

So, fellow survivors, did I miss any? Am I way off base on any of these? Let me know, I’d love to hear what you think.