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Determining the right thing to say to a friend with cancer

Mecklenburg County

The idea of cancer can make many of us uncomfortable, and with that discomfort can come uncertainty, and fears about our own mortality. But when a friend or relative is facing a diagnosis of cancer, that's when they need the most understanding and support.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Mindy Greenstein, a cancer survivor herself, gives some advice on how to talk to someone who has cancer. Greenstein is a clinical psychologist, psycho-oncologist, and a consultant in the Department of Psychiatry at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She's also the author of the book “The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities.”

Many people can be afraid that they’re going to say the wrong thing to a cancer patient, but Greenstein says this is going to happen regardless. Since you never know what may be a good or a bad thing for a particular person, it can make it hard to offer what you think may be comfort. But Greenstein says it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it and how you listen.

“When I first was diagnosed with breast cancer about 10 years ago, I very tearfully told my neighbor...I have breast cancer. And she immediately responds by saying ‘so who doesn’t?’ And I loved that, she made my day,” Greenstein said.

Although this response was able to cheer Greenstein up, it may not have had the same effect on someone else.

“So what might be the perfect thing to say to Mindy on Monday might be the wrong thing to say to Linda—or to Mindy on Tuesday even.”

But even if Greenstein was offended by what her neighbor said, she says it still wouldn’t be the worst response. Instead, Greenstein says the worst thing a cancer patient can experience is someone who, instead of being there for their friend, starts to try and calculate their own risk of cancer. People do this when they ask questions like: “Does it run in your family?”

“The question isn’t inherently bad; it’s why you’re asking the question. That’s the issue.”

Greenstein says reassuring yourself about cancer while talking to someone who has the disease doesn’t offer much comfort.

“You use a lot of brain cells dealing with your own fears and it makes it harder to be there,” Greenstein said. “Be mindful; are you asking your questions for the sake of your friend or for your own sake?”

Although cancer might be the worst thing that’s happened to a person you love, it most likely isn’t the first bad thing that’s happened, says Greenstein. The coping skills that you’ve developed with that person over the years for other problems should also be what are implemented if they have cancer.

“If you really want to be helpful, you need to be what your friend needs you to be.”

This can be listening to them talk about their fears with cancer, being a distraction and talking about anything but cancer, or helping out with daily chores that might become difficult with the disease, Greenstein says.

“One image that comes to my mind about what you need to be rather than do…is a scene from ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ Piglet calls out Pooh’s name from behind, and Pooh says, ‘yes Piglet?’ And Piglet takes Pooh’s hand and says, ‘oh nothing I just wanted to be sure of you.’ Often what your friend needs is to be sure of you, to know that you can be there and tolerate what he or she is going through,” Greenstein said.  

Another important thing to realize is that everybody copes differently. Greenstein says there is no evidence that shows how you cope with cancer will affect your chances of survival, and to not stress out if you don’t have a 100 percent positive attitude about it.

“It’s a trial and error period.”

One method Greenstein used was watchingtelevision shows while doing chemotherapy treatment. She says this allowed her to forget about the treatment and focus on being entertained.

“We started watching ‘Arrested Development,’ and my husband and I, we would be laughing in the chemo room, and nurses would come by and try to peer behind the screen to try to figure out what we were laughing at while I was there getting chemo up my arm.” Greenstein said. “It completely transformed my experience.”