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This R U OK? Day we want to talk about how you can have a meaningful conversation with someone you know who is going through a cancer diagnosis.

It can be hard to know how to support someone with cancer, so we’ve put together a helpful guide to help you be the best support you can be to someone you know who is impacted by a cancer diagnosis.

Starting the conversation

Often, making the first contact is the hardest part. There are no rules, and every relationship is different.

You could say:

  • It’s alright to start with “I don’t know what to say.” and follow up with, “but thank you for sharing your news.” or “I’m pleased you told me.”.
  • “How are you today?” can be a good opening that will allow them to take the lead.
  • “Would you like to talk about it?”—Let them dictate when and where they want to talk and what they want to talk about.
  • “I’ve been thinking of you.”

Remember that sometimes, people might prefer not to share their thoughts and feelings, and it’s important to respect this. Perhaps they’d prefer to talk about other things and be distracted or entertained for a while.

If they are not open to talking right now, you could say:

  • “Please call me if you ever want to chat.”
  • “Is there someone else you’d rather talk to?”

Listening with an open mind

One of the best ways to help your friend or loved one is to actively listen when they are talking to you. Give them the opportunity to talk about their cancer if they want to. Show that you’re ready to listen by:

  • Sitting somewhere private where you will not be interrupted.
  • Making it clear that you are there for as long as is needed, e.g. switch off your mobile phone.
  • Maintaining eye contact.
  • Listening carefully to what may be behind the words—try not to think about something else or plan what you will say next.
  • Acknowledging that this is a difficult time—ask open questions to help you understand how the other person is feeling, e.g. “How are you feeling about that?”.
  • Avoiding interrupting or changing the subject.
  • Allowing them to express their feelings of anger, fear and sadness—you do not always have to be cheerful.
  • Showing that you’ve listened by repeating back what you’ve heard (in your own words) and asking if you have understood them properly.
  • Waiting to be asked before giving advice.
  • Using humour to relieve tension.
  • If they need time to think, sitting patiently in the silence.

Encouraging them to access other supports

You can encourage your friend or loved one to speak to family members, friends or health professionals who can provide emotional support in different but valuable ways. Be positive about the role of professionals in getting through tough times.

If they have questions about cancer or just need someone to talk to who understands, you could encourage them to contact Cancer Council 13 11 20 to speak to an experienced cancer nurse who can also link them to a range of other supports including counselling and peer support.

You could say:

  • “How would you like me to support you?”
  • “It might be useful to link in with someone who can support you. I’m happy to assist you to find the right person to talk to.”

Checking in

Stay in touch and be there for them. Genuine care and concern can make a real difference. Pop a reminder in your diary to call them in a couple of weeks or if they’re really struggling, follow up with them sooner.

You could say:

  • “I’ve been thinking of you and wanted to know how you’ve been going since we last chatted.”

What not to say

While you may feel nervous or uncomfortable about saying the right thing or knowing what to say to someone with cancer, it is important to respect their feelings and privacy and be there for them during this time.

Some things to avoid when someone you know is diagnosed with cancer are:

  • Avoiding your friend or family member because you don’t know what to say.
  • Getting embarrassed or worried if either of you gets upset.
  • Telling them not to worry and that things will be fine.
  • Assuming that the person can’t continue to work or do their usual activities.
  • Telling them to be strong.
  • Assuming all is well as soon as treatment is finished.
  • Telling them about cancer stories you have been told.
  • Offering advice about diet or lifestyle, the latest cure or treatment you have heard about.

If you need support caring for someone with cancer or knowing what to say to someone diagnosed with cancer, we are here for you. You can speak to our experienced cancer nurses on 13 11 20.

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