What You Can Say to Someone With Cancer During and After Treatment

July 16, 2019
Eva Grayzel

Eva Grayzel was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer in 1998, when she was 33 years old and in the midst of a successful career in storytelling. She is an author, motivational speaker, and founder of Six-Step Screening, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of oral cancer and getting more people screened for the disease.  

“How are you?”

Every person entering my hospital room asked that question: the doctor, residents, aides, and visitors.share on twitter It irritated me. Take a guess. What do you think? I had stage IV tongue cancer. One-third of my tongue was reconstructed from tissues from my arm and leg. Also, the big muscle on the left side of my neck was removed because cancerous lymph nodes clung to it.

Instead of asking a question you know the answer to when you visit someone with cancer in the hospital, bring what you think he or she will enjoy,share on twitter such as a short story to read, sermon of the week, a joke book, massage oil, watercolors, or a deck of cards for a game or card trick. Then say:

“I’d like to bring you a moment of joy. What would you like to do right now?”

A visit is an opportunity to empower your friend. A hospital is a place where patients’ time is always controlled by other people’s schedules. Visitors come when it’s convenient for them. So use your visiting time to meet your friend’s wishes. 

If you want to bring a gift, bring one that provides comfort. My favorites were:

  • Petroleum-free lip balm because hospital air can be dry

  • Cushy socks because hospitals are often cold

  • A guestbook so I could remember all the people who came to visit

  • A soft toothbrush that doesn’t cut the gums, reducing the risk of infection

What do you say to a cancer survivor when you see them transitioning back into their regular routines? When I recovered from treatment and resumed living my life, friends who knew I had cancer and hadn’t seen me in a while would say:

 “You look great!”

I had a 15% chance of surviving 5 years, and they were commenting on my looks? I know what they really meant to say was:

“It’s great to see you.”

When put that way, it acknowledges that I survived something big and there was a chance they wouldn’t see me again.

But I also have an off-topic question to ask you: “Do you get an oral cancer screening at your dental checkups?” Yes, you can get cancer in the mouth! If I had known it was a remote possibility, I’d have been more proactive when the sore in my mouth didn’t heal. I wish I knew that a non-healing lesion in the mouth of a someone who has never smoked and is a social drinker has a higher risk of being cancer. Your dentist or dental hygienist should evaluate your tongue, cheeks, lips, and the floor, roof, and back of your mouth at every visit. Your tongue should be pressed down during this exam to see if the back of your mouth is the same size all around. Also, a thorough screening includes palpation of your neck to check for any hard lumps.

Here’s the bottom line: You can find alternatives to the overused comments made to people with cancer and bring joy to them in this difficult time. And remember, you can’t spell “overall health” without oral health.

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