From OHC, Specialists in the Treatment of Adult Cancers and Blood Disorders

March 7, 2022

This year, nearly two million Americans will receive a cancer diagnosis. If a friend or loved one shares their diagnosis with you, naturally, you will want to convey compassion and support, but it can be challenging to know exactly what to say. OHC advanced practice provider and Supportive Care Lead, Lisa Ovesen, MSN, APRN, and Jamie Wiener, LPCC, Program Director of Cancer Support Community – Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky, offer recommendations on approaching the subject of a new cancer diagnosis both supportively and respectfully. Cancer Support Community offers free community-based programs and support services for those touched by cancer.

“When approaching a conversation with a newly diagnosed cancer patient, it is important to take time to gather your thoughts and think before you speak,” said Lisa. “Even if you have been diagnosed with cancer, no two individuals will cope with the diagnosis the same way. Try to put yourself in the patient’s shoes and make sure your conversation focuses on them.”

“Some people struggle with the initial shock of learning about the person’s diagnosis and they avoid the subject,” said Jamie. “Don’t avoid the elephant in the room. Let the individual know you are there for them and available to listen.” After receiving a cancer diagnosis, some feel extremely alone. Avoiding the subject has the potential to further isolate them. Know that your role is to be supportive and listen. Come to the realization that you will not have all the answers. It is actually better to convey that you do not know what to say rather than not saying anything at all.

Jamie’s most important piece of advice: follow the patient’s lead. “Don’t come with an agenda and keep your focus on what the individual is saying,” advised Jamie. Some might want to discuss their diagnosis in detail, and some may not want to talk at all. Jamie recommends being an active listener and recognizing that some people might want someone to simply sit and listen to them. Active listening involves being engaged in what the speaker is saying.

You will want your supportive words to be heartfelt, so it is best to avoid preparing a script. Lisa offers these conversation starters:

  • “I’m sorry to hear…”
  • “How are you doing?”
  • “If you’d like to talk, I’m here for you.”

And, while you are bringing your authentic self to the conversation, remember that the conversation is about the patient, not you. Even if you have experience coping with a life-altering diagnosis, this moment is about the newly diagnosed patient. You cannot compare their situation to anyone else’s. If you are having trouble coping with your friend or loved one’s recent diagnosis, bring your troubles to someone else in your support system or to a support group.

Jamie notes that there are also things to avoid saying. “Avoid terms like ‘battle’ and ‘hero’,” said Jamie. “These put pressure on the patient and might make them feel like they aren’t fighting hard enough. Also, don’t minimize their experience by saying, ‘It’s going to be O.K.’ or ‘Be positive’.” Avoid commentary on their appearance and be respectful of their privacy. “It’s important to ask them about what information regarding their diagnosis is O.K. to share and with whom,” added Jamie.

In addition to being an active listener, Lisa recommends taking the following actions to show support for your newly diagnosed friend or loved one:

  • Attend their appointments with them.
  • Set up meal deliveries.
  • Be specific in your offer to assist with errands (ie. “Can I do your laundry?” or “I’m headed to the grocery store, so give me your list.”).
  • Be willing to simply sit with the patient and “be” with them in their pain. Some patients report that once things appear to be going well for them, their support system disappears.
  • Follow the patient’s lead regarding their interest in helpful resources and then offer to find some for them.
  • Be positive. Remind the patient that you are there for them.

At OHC, we are committed to surrounding patients with all they need so that they can focus on beating cancer. We connect patients with several community resource organizations, like Cancer Support Community, that support patients and their loved ones with a variety of services including educational information and events, counseling, support groups, transportation to appointments, and more. For more information on the comprehensive care offered by OHC or to request a second opinion, call 1-888-649-4800 or visit ohcare.com.

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