What To Do When A Loved One Is Diagnosed With Cancer, According To Four Cancer Survivors

How to find the right words when someone close to you has been diagnosed with cancer.
An illustration of a family video calling another family on a large Iphone Illustration by Getty Images

Figuring out what to say or do when a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer is never easy. Four survivors tell Chatelaine what they wished people knew when they were sick.

Don't make the cancer about you

“Just say, ‘I’m here if you need me,’ and actually be there and check in. Sending a message means a lot, even if it’s a week or a month since you last spoke. But sometimes it’s like people want to be part of someone else’s tragedy. Are you here because you genuinely care? Don’t let someone else’s suffering be your suffering. My cancer is not an opportunity to share with your co-workers or strangers. Be supportive and be there—otherwise, don’t make it about you.” —Leigh Wall, 41, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, papillary thyroid cancer survivor

Don't disappear once the treatment is over

“During treatment, there was a lot of support and everyone was in my corner. But when cancer treatment finishes, that actually becomes the loneliest time. You’re in survival mode during treatment, and afterward I almost felt abandoned or isolated. I felt like people didn’t care anymore. It’s like, ‘Oh, she’s done treatment. So, she’s cured.’ But the two years or more after the last dose of radiation was the hardest time of my cancer journey, both physically and emotionally, due to the sudden lack of support. I wanted people to realize I was still healing from cancer, and I still needed that love and attention. And it was gone.” —Marcella Sanderson, 49, Newmarket, Ontario, breast cancer survivor

Don't treat me like a victim

“The radiation I had when I was 18 [to] was terrible. I lost my hair. I lost weight. I was very sick. And because of that intense radiation, I developed other cancers, like breast cancer and thyroid cancer. Unfortunately, I’ve been told that I can’t have any more chemotherapy or radiation. So, basically, if I’m diagnosed in the future and we don’t extract the tumour, then that’s it. But you have to live with that and deal with it. I would say I’m a good survivor. I battled it. I’m happy. I don’t get upset about it. And I downplay it. I find people make too much of it, like, ‘Oh, you have cancer, you poor thing.’ I don’t like for people to feel that way. Oftentimes, I don’t even want to talk about it. I’m not a fragile creature. I don’t like pity. And I like to forget about it sometimes.” —Debbie Hannon, 66, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Hodgkins lymphoma, breast cancer and thyroid cancer survivor

Call before you visit


“It was instinctual for all my friends and family to jump in and help. They wanted to cook for me, do my laundry, clean my house, keep me company. But living with cancer was messy and gross, and I didn’t always want people to witness that. I wished they would call first and say: ‘When you’re ready and you want some help with cleaning, please call me.’ Those would be magic words. I really wanted more time and space to process my emotions, because there were so many, and I didn’t want people to witness that. I wish that I was more assertive at the time. But assertiveness required an energy I didn’t have.” —Grace Imperial-Prasad, 53, Richmond, British Columbia, colon cancer survivor


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