Living with cancer blog

Words matter in supporting cancer survivors

By Lonnie Fynskov, R.N. March 22, 2016

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." That didn't seem true to me as a child, but as an adult, I've come to realize that words can be powerful vehicles for either pain or support.

We'd like to believe that family and friends want to offer words of support when hearing about a new cancer diagnosis, treatment decision or prognosis, but sometimes words unintentionally cause pain.

Recently, someone in my family was dealing with her second round of chemotherapy for recurring breast cancer. When asked how she was feeling, her response took many people by surprise.

She said, "I hate when people ask me how I'm feeling because I always wonder if they want me to actually tell them or if I need to protect them by just saying fine." What seemed like an innocent, well-intentioned question felt unsupportive and insincere to her.

I can humbly admit to having been both the sender and recipient of similar exchanges. Sometimes because of our discomfort with hard conversations or a need to "fix it" we may turn to phrases such as "at least it isn't terminal", "I'm sure you’ll be back to your old self soon" or "I know how you must be feeling".

While these words are meant to encourage, they can come across as minimizing the experience and consequently stop any honest communication about what is really happening for the cancer survivor.

As I mentioned earlier, most people have the best of intentions to provide support during difficult times, but may find it hard to find the right words to convey how they feel.

Perhaps just honestly putting those feelings into words would be helpful. An example might be: "I'm not sure what to say. I really care about you and want to support you. This is such a difficult thing to talk about but most of all; I want to be here for you."

As a cancer survivor, you've have probably heard many comments that felt awkward, hurtful or at best, unhelpful. I'd love to have you share one of them and why it felt hurtful but also, what would have been more helpful? It may be a wonderful way for us to learn from each other.

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March 22, 2016