How to Talk to Your Friend with Cancer

friends with cancer

Sex and the City aired on HBO from 1998 to 2004 and tells the story of four women living in New York.  In the last season, one of the main characters, Samantha is diagnosed with cancer.  In true dramatic fashion, the reveal occurs during an episode where another character, Miranda is getting married.  Samantha wanted to keep it a secret so as not to ruin the wedding and encouraged Miranda to return to “her people.”  In a touching and memorable moment, Miranda declares “you are my people” and abandons the wedding festivities.  The episode ends on a serious note with the four women intimately discussing Samantha’s diagnosis, beautifully portraying how friends can navigate such a complex topic.

No doubt cancer is a scary diagnosis and the mere sound of it can stop anyone in their tracks.  A cancer diagnosis can stir up powerful emotions in both the person diagnosed and in their family, friends, and loved ones.  Friends usually try to come up with the “right” words to show their love and support.  But, what words can possibly make a cancer diagnosis any better? 

Soon after, questions and fears come into play.  How will my friend react when the topic is raised?  Should we talk about it?  Do I just ignore it?  Is it ok to ask questions?  Should I act like it doesn’t scare the hell out of me?  Sometimes, there are no obvious or clear-cut answers.

However, there are some important things to keep in mind when talking to a friend with cancer., especially during Breast Cancer Awareness Month One of the best things to do is to follow your friend’s lead.  Inquire if they are up to talking about the subject and if so, let them lead on how much they want to discuss.  If they appear open and willing to field questions, ask them.  If they provide a few short details and change the subject, allow the subject to be changed, even if some of your questions go unanswered.

Communication does not only involve verbal expression.  Communication can occur through facial expressions, gestures, and body language.  Sometimes a touch, hug, or meaningful eye contact can show more support than an hour conversation could.  Engage in active listening, avoid distractions, and use body language and facial expressions to show concern and support.

Be comfortable with silence.  Interestingly enough, many people are uncomfortable sitting with silence.  After a few seconds, people often feel compelled to say something, take action, or do something to break the silence.  If your friend takes the lead by becoming silent, sit there in silence with them.  Sometimes, your physical presence is more than enough. 

Be mindful not to dismiss or ignore your friend’s experience.  It is important to validate their fears and concerns and do not profess to know exactly what they are going through.  Avoid making blanket statements that they will “be fine”, “not to worry”, or “things will work out.”  The reality is that we never know how things will really work out.  Maybe they should be worried…Maybe they will not be fine.  When you do not know what to say, it is completely acceptable to be honest and just admit it to your friend instead of getting nervous and risk saying something to upset them.

Perhaps most importantly, do not abandon or avoid your friend out of fear.  Instead, let them know that you are there to listen if they feel like talking and are available to step up if anything is needed.  It is also very important to incorporate other topics into your conversation.  Every conversation that you have should not be about cancer.  This will enable your friend to stay actively engaged in their interests and relationships and show them that they are not defined by their diagnosis.

This particular Sex and the City episode was so powerful because the actresses depicted their concern via active listening, intimate body language, and let the character with the cancer diagnosis lead.  It is a great scene to depict how one could effectively communicate with a friend who has cancer.      

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Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.
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