How to react when someone tells you they have The Cancer.

If there’s one question I’ve received, more than any others, along this cancer ‘journey’ (ugh - now I have to pay $5 to the ‘journey jar’) it’s “What should I say? Would should I NOT say!?” So, drumroll … I’ve written a HANDY GUIDE. Then, if you find yourself in the terribly awkward and supremely crap situation of a loved-one getting cancer, you won’t put your foot into it.

Ready? Let’s go:


1. Be honest, open and positive

Try: ‘Aw MAN. That sucks! I’m really sorry to hear that.”

Not: ‘Oh my god. Oh god. I’m so sorry. Oh, my darling. [starts crying]’

2. Let them guide you

‘Would you like a hug?’ rather than leaning in for a big teary squeeze.

‘Can I ask questions?’ rather than, ‘Holy shit! What HAPPENED!?’

3. Don’t be a stranger

Just because you don’t know what to say doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything. My 91 year old Grama sends me an email every morning with a snap from one of her old photo albums. Every contact is meaningful, no matter how small.

4. Be specific in your offers of help

‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do!’ is really hard to respond to. Try, ‘Would you rather magazines or soup this week?’

5. Don’t ask, ‘How are you?’

Their internal monologue will be screaming, ‘How am I?! HOW AM I? HOW THE FU-‘ … anyway, you get the idea. Try, ‘How are you this afternoon?’ or ‘Tell me about your morning?’

6. And finally, most importantly, check your cancer baggage at the door!

We have all had horrific experiences with cancer. Dead relatives, dying friends, hell - traumatic viewings of Step Mom. The important thing is, don’t let this pour out of your face when someone tells you their news. Shut up your memory shop and focus on them, not your past trauma. Because the horror-death-PTSD eyes don’t help. Trust me. The darkest place you go on hearing their news? They’re living there, 24/7.

Instead, take a deep breath and imagine they’ve told you they have a crippling but curable disease. Nowadays, even Stage 4 cancer can be a condition that is managed rather than instantly fatal. Your focus on this fact will be more helpful to them than anything else.

And if all else fails, swear. Swearing helps a lot.

~ A version of this article was first published on MamaMia ~