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Learning someone has cancer - walking the delicate line of what to say and do

August 13, 2015
Marlene Quinlan consults with a patient

An estimated 1,658,370 persons will have learned that they have cancer before the end of this year.

For those on the receiving end of this very personal news from a friend or loved one that they have been diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to know what to say and do in response.

You may feel shocked, sad, and even a little guilty that you are the healthy one. All are normal feelings.

There is no script, no right or wrong (but there are things you should never say) because each person is different in how they deal with their cancer.

Sometimes a simple “sorry” is the safest response, and sometimes it is best to just listen. But, is silence always golden?

Marlene Quinlan LICSW, an oncology social worker in the Baystate Regional Cancer Program, says some of her patients tell her that they have been surprised and sometimes upset by what people say to them.

“Why is it ok that they want to tell me about everyone they know who has had cancer? And, when I ask how those persons are today, they tell me that they died,” said Quinlan about some of the concerns she has heard from patients.

The Baystate oncology social worker said it is not expected that we all have the right words in this situation.

“One good rule is to avoid telling stories about other people you knew with cancer and focus instead on your friend who is with you. It is okay to feel nervous about what to say. Let your friend know that you are unsure of what to say, and that you don’t want to say the wrong thing, and then let them know that you care about them and want to help in any way they would like,” said Quinlan.

Quinlan suggests thinking about the following in response to when a friend or loved one tells you he or she has cancer:

Take your cues from the person with cancer and be a supportive presence. He or she may or may not want to talk about their cancer on any given day. So, ask them. After all, they are first and foremost your friends and loved ones, and it is perfectly fine for your conversations to resemble the ones that you had prior to the cancer diagnosis. If they do want to talk about their cancer, let them lead the conversation while you listen and offer support and concern.

“Just listening is being supportive,” said Quinlan.

Offer assistance with practical daily life tasks. If you are in a position to offer help with their daily routines, do so, but be sure to keep your promise to help. Provide a written list of things that you can help with and follow-up.

“Some individuals will accept help and others will not. Don't take rejections for help personally,” said Quinlan.

She also suggests some things to never say or do, such as:

Avoid comparison stories. They are not typically helpful. If you have experienced cancer yourself, sharing might be helpful and it can be offered, but do not assume that your friend or loved one wants to hear about your experience now.

Do not assume that you know how the person feels and avoid saying, “I understand or I know how you feel.” This statement is well-intentioned, but not always well received.

Avoid giving advice. Remember that everyone’s cancer is different and too many ideas can lead to more confusion. If they ask for your opinion, be open and honest, but do not answer questions that are beyond you knowledge.

In 1996, Congress enacted the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a set of federal regulations governing the healthcare industry’s protection and privacy of a patient’s health information.

But, what if you don’t work in a healthcare setting and are not bound by HIPAA? Should you share with others what you’ve just learned about your friend, loved one or co-worker having cancer? Should you actually ask them what they want you to do?

“It is always a good idea to determine if the information that you have been given about a loved one, friend or co-worker is actually true and meant to be private. When information is shared with you, make sure that you check to see if the information can be shared and with whom,” said Quinlan.

Whether you are hearing from a loved one, friend or coworker about their cancer diagnosis, he or she is someone with whom you have a relationship. The cancer diagnosis does not change your relationship. The person with cancer is the same person you knew prior to the diagnosis. Communicate your concern and be attentive to the likely changes and needs, but stay consistent with your role in the relationship. Continue to offer your support throughout treatment and post treatment, noted Quinlan.

It is not easy to see someone you care for deal with a cancer diagnosis.

“You have listened, you have offered your support, you have helped with the practical aspects of life, and you have pitched in at work to carry the load. Your efforts have been appreciated and you have been a tremendous relative, friend or co-worker,” said Quinlan.

Now, what can you do for yourself?

“Check in with yourself and evaluate your own needs. Check your stress level and maintain a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle. Get your required rest, maintain good nutrition, exercise, and practice good self-care for your own health and well-being, and so that you can continue to be there for your friend, loved one or coworker,” said Quinlan.

For more information on the Baystate Regional Cancer Program, visit

 Photo - Oncology social worker Marlene Quinlan LICSW consults with one of her patients.