"You'll be fine-a positive attitude is all you need"
"Call me if you need anything"
"My friend died of cancer"
The first two quotes might seem totally innocuous, just someone encouraging good thoughts and offering to help. The truth is good thoughts are wonderful as long as they don't seem dismissive or patronizing to the person battling the worst thoughts they have ever had. Be careful about platitudes and focus on empathy rather than sympathy. As for the second quote, how many of us have said something vague like "call me if you need anything" not really meaning it? Or been on the receiving end of an offer like that and not known what was too much to ask for. Be specific for the person who you want to help, are you willing to clean the bathroom and do laundry? Would you prefer to cook and freeze meals? Can you pick kids up after school? Then tell them. The clearer you are with the kind of help you are offering the easier it is for the cancer survivor in your life to articulate something that would make a difference.
The last quote seems obvious when it sits starkly on the page, who would say that? But truthfully even the best intentioned most thoughtful people find themselves with their foot in their mouths when trying to empathize and indicate an acute understanding of what someone else is going through, which can lead to accidentally verbalizing a patient's worst fears.
Over the last couple weeks an article called "What not to say to a cancer patient" from The Dallas Morning News has been making the rounds in the cancer community. Whether you are a family member, friend, coworker, boss or all of the above, it is important to remember that though everyone is different there are some good rules of thumb for what to say and do and more importantly for what not to say or do! The full article can be found here: http://www.dallasnews.com/health/cancer/headlines/20110404-what-not-to-say-to-a-cancer-patient.ece