Talking With Someone Who Has Cancer, with Dr. Lidia Schapira

Last Updated: August 20, 2018

It can be difficult to find the right words when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. In this video, Dr. Lidia Schapira offers some guidance on ways to express your support.

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Talking With Someone Who Has Cancer

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Cancer.Net®: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

Talking With Someone Who Has Cancer

Lidia Schapira, MD: When somebody close to you - a friend, perhaps a neighbor, relative is diagnosed with cancer, you want to be helpful. You want to be there. Perhaps the best thing to do is to show them that you care and express your support as quickly as you can without waiting. We've got so many different ways of communicating, and everybody, every relationship sort of has their own comfortable way of communicating. But just one way of getting it started is to say, "I heard about the situation or I heard about what you're going through, and I just want to you to know that I care and I'm here for you." Just something very, very simple. Perhaps using an I sentence - I care. I'd like to help, tell me what I can do.

Process Your Own Feelings

Dr. Schapira: It's important that you process and think about your own feelings, of course, so that then you can be in a better position of being really a good friend, a supporter, and listener. What I mean by being a listener is, in a way, putting aside your own thoughts, not thinking about what you're feeling or saying but really being there and asking your loved one, your friend, your neighbor, your family member to tell you what they're worried about.

Ask How You Can Help

Dr. Schapira: One of the valuable lessons I've learned doing this work is not to make assumptions about what people need or want. I think that's useful advice also for family and friends who are looking for ways of expressing their support. It's important to ask of people want company, it's important to ask of people want material assistance or perhaps meals, or whatever it is you're thinking of giving them, rather than make an educated guess based on what you'd like to give or what would work for you. It's really better to be explicit and open and say, "How can I be most helpful to you?" Following your intuition is important, and if you think somebody is sad or could use some company, it's probably a great idea to say "Would you mind if I come sit with you?" or perhaps just phone or leave an email message saying, "Thinking of you. Call me if you'd like some company."

The needs may change over time as does the illness and perhaps the worries as well. So I think showing up, showing genuine concern, being flexible, and then negotiating how it is you can best provide that support is the best way forward.

Find Support for Yourself

Dr. Schapira: It's important to remember also that caregivers and friends also need their own support so if you are feeling overwhelmed by feelings because it's somebody you're very close to because you feel you identify with their plight, it's important for you as well to look after yourself so that you can be more useful as a friend, as a supporter. So caregivers have feelings too, and everybody needs support. Strengthening your own support system will help you to be a better listener and a better friend. So my advice would be to make sure that you feel good and strong and that you are supported, that you can really think about how you're going to provide help in a way that's useful to the person that you want to provide help to, and that you can be very supportive. I've seen so many different families and friends come together in creative ways, and it really is enormously heart-warming to see how relationships can evolve and transform in order to be there in a time of crisis, and for people to give each other the support they need.

Where to Get More Information

Dr. Schapira: We refer patients, family members, loved ones, caregivers to Cancer.Net for two reasons. One is to look at the information about the cancers, to make better decisions, to be better informed and to have a sense of being in control, but also because Cancer.Net has an extensive section on coping. In that section, we actually do give advice on how to have these conversations, and we actually have content also that addresses many of the common concerns, fears, and worries. So having information, even about how to help, may be helpful and also may give people some ideas about how to be most productive as they try to bring some solace to those who are in need.

[Closing and Credits]

Cancer.Net®: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

ASCO's patient education programs are supported by Conquer Cancer Foundation of the American Society of Clinical  

Special Thanks:

Dr. Mary Wilkinson, Dr. Raymund Cuevo, and the staff at Medical Oncology & Hematology Associates of Northern Virginia

Carolyn B. Hendricks, MD, The Cancer for Breast Health

Hasbro Children’s Hospital

Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care Health System

The Adele R. Decof Comprehensive Cancer Center at The Miriam Hospital. The Miriam Hospital is a teaching hospital of The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University

Video Footage and photography courtesy of:

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Biomedical Communications

Moffitt Cancer Center

University Hospitals Case Medical Center Seidman Cancer Center

The opinions expressed in the video do not necessarily reflect the views of ASCO or the Conquer Cancer Foundation.

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