What do you say when a friend has cancer?

A year ago today, I went to see my doctor about a lump that was growing scarily fast inside my mouth. Twelve days later, I was in a hospital bed with a cocktail of chemo drugs moving through an IV in my arm.

Over the next few weeks, I adjusted to the fact that I had squamous cell carcinoma; that it was most likely curable; and that I had a long road of chemotherapy and radiation ahead.

But one thing I couldn’t get used to was telling people I had cancer.

It wasn’t so much that revealing the news was painful; it was that I dreaded the responses. I hated giving bad news to people I cared about. I hated seeing them upset.

Telling my parents was the worst, especially as they’re 3,000 miles away. I kept dancing around the c-word, using medical terminology, until finally I had to say, “It’s kind of a cancery thing.”

At which point, my mom started to cry.

Friends were not much easier. The day before I started treatment, I went the movies with a dear friend of almost 20 years. I managed to find ways to avoid the conversation until she dropped me off at home and I was about to get out of the car (“Oh, by the way …”).

To avoid telling people face to face, I sent out carefully crafted “I have bad news” emails, which gave the recipient the luxury of taking it in and thinking about a reply (and, selfishly, meant I didn’t have to worry about bursting into tears at their reaction).

Of course, people’s responses were not surprising; they were just emotionally hard to handle.

But the thing is that, even now, I couldn’t tell you what I would have preferred instead.

And I certainly can’t provide you with a failsafe response in case someone you love tells you they have cancer.

Everybody handles their cancer diagnosis differently. And what someone wants to hear from you will vary, depending on how close your relationship is, or the reaction of the last person they told, or whether they’re tired, nauseous, in need of a chocolate fix.

There are no words to make it better. There’s no magic spell to take it away. And you’re not expected to be perfect.

If all you can offer is “I’m sorry” and a hug, that’s fine. Show that you’re there for them in that moment, and that you’ll be there when they need you.

My friends and family were great about that. Some delivered homemade muffins or ice cream. Others came to watch a movie and keep me company on the long winter days when I didn’t want to leave the house. Others offered to clean the apartment or shovel snow. Another, too far away to visit, sent regular packages – a book, a pretty headscarf, a letter to say she was thinking of me.

What should you do? It depends on how well you know the person with cancer and what their preferences are. If you don’t know, it’s absolutely okay to ask them. But don’t take it to heart if they’re not forthcoming.

Remember that as hard as it is for you to hear a loved one say “I have cancer,” it may be even harder for them to tell you.

Carolyn Grantham is the web editor for dana-farber.org and espanol.dana-farber.org, and co-editor of Insight, Dana-Farber’s blog.

Courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

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