If I had a penny every time I heard…

What not to say to cancer patients! Amy hung up the phone, and looked at her husband. “You know, if I had a penny for every time someone told me that I was too young to have cancer or God will see you through this or I knew someone with cancer, we’d be able to send both boys to college and retire and move to the Bahamas.”

She sighed, “Then I could sit around and eat bon-bons and read magazines all day.”

An embellishment perhaps? Perhaps not. Ask any person you know who has had cancer or is going through cancer treatments right now. People are well-intentioned in wanting to offer some form of solidarity or comfort to a cancer patient. Yet, a lot of phrases get overused when conversing with a person with cancer.

“Oh, I know someone with cancer.” “I feel so bad for you and your family.” “I’m so sorry.” “Is there anything I can do for you?” “Are you OK?” “You’ll be OK.” “I wish I could take your cancer for your.” “That’s got to be so tough.” “You’re too young to go through this.” “I’m here if you need anything.” “God never gives you something you can’t handle.” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “It is all about your attitude.” “You’re so strong.” “This will just make you stronger.” “I can’t imagine what you are going through.” “Things get worse before they get better.” “I’m so glad you’re fighting it.”

Yehuda Berg once said, “Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.”

According to Mark Robert Waldman and Andrew Newberg, M.D. the words you hear can have an affect on your brain – which in turn can effect your body’s ability to battle illnesses, like cancer.

In their book, ‘Words Can Change Your Brain,’ Waldman and Newberg write that“a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”

Dr. Elie Isenberg-Grzeda, a psycho-social oncologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, took Waldman and Newberg’s view a little further. In an interview with CBC News recently, Isenberg-Grzeda explained that the words a cancer patient hears all the time could be detrimental to patients, and ‘their overall sense of well-being.’

According to him, people who have been diagnosed with cancer already feel unwell, and being reminded of the disease by well-meaning friends could just ‘add insult to injury.’

So what is there to do? What should one say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer? Dr. Isenberg-Grzeda said in his interview, “Sometimes, we don’t have to say anything, and sometimes, there isn’t anything to say.”

Amy told her husband after her phone conversation, “You know what I would like to have someone say to me when they hear about my diagnosis? Sometimes?”

Her husband asked, “What?”
“Nothing.”

An online support group website, associated with the American Cancer Society, WhatNext.Com, put out a question to its members to find out what as a cancer patient would they like to for people to say to them.

The following is a compilation of suggestions: ‘I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you;’ ‘Let me help with …;’ ‘What have you been up to?;’ ‘Where can I learn more?;’ or ‘How about a hug?’

Other patients suggested sending a text or just calling a person on a regular basis – just to say hi. One even stated how much she loved getting handwritten notes in the mail.

Keating once wrote, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

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