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How to Talk to Someone About Their Cancer Journey, According to 6 Patients and Survivors

More than 1.7 million people in the United States will have been diagnosed with cancer this year. With one in three Americans facing a cancer diagnosis in his or her lifetime, cancer is a disease that, directly or indirectly, affects all of us. Cancer is a common thread in our collective story, and yet, many struggle to broach the topic in conversation.

As part of a special project for Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) and The Mighty, six cancer patients and survivors share their experience living with cancer, and offer advice for speaking to others about their cancer journeys.

1. Treat cancer patients with compassion, not pity.

“Too often, I’m asked if I’m OK, as if I’m gone already. Please be aware that we are scared for both ourselves and for our loved ones who see us struggle. We need shoulders to cry on and ears to vent to, but most of all, we need to feel some normalcy to our life. Treat us the same way as before diagnosis, with love and friendship.” – Jose, 58, Rockaway, NJ (Colon Cancer)

2. Understand that those with cancer are more than a diagnosis.

“Be curious how T.J. the person is doing, not just T.J. the patient. Patients reveal medical progress at varying levels, but all of us look to connect on a personal level. I want to open up on how cancer has changed — or not changed — my life. Being able to compartmentalize my disease and articulate it in my terms gives me a semblance of control in a journey where so many things are beyond that control.” – T.J., 44, Fort Lauderdale, FL (Melanoma)

3. Speak freely and ask questions.

“I wish everyone in my life spoke freely and asked any question they had about my condition. There’s really nothing I haven’t played over and over and over in my mind already. I understand that it may be an issue of how comfortable someone is — I’ve seen friends keep their distance because of their fears of confronting mortality. But that’s my reality. Ask away.” – Dave, 52, Los Angeles, CA (Esophageal Cancer)

4. Avoid speaking in clichés.

“I live in two worlds: the present and the ‘not sure how much time I have’ future. I don’t really want to hear that we’re given only what we can handle. ‘How are things going?’ and ‘Is there anything you need?’ are safe questions. ‘Can I buy you lunch? Or a coffee?’ are even better questions. Don’t look at me with pity — I’m still soaking in every magical moment and finding joy, because I’m still alive.” – Anna, 49, Detroit, MI (Metastatic Thyroid Cancer)

5. Truly listen.

“I would like people to listen to understand, and not listen to respond. When you listen to respond, it feels as if you are minimizing my experience to fit into a category that makes you feel comfortable to talk about. When you truly listen, you will understand that my experience was anything but comfortable.” – Candace, 52, Chicago IL (Colon Cancer)

6. Remember every journey is different.

“No two cancer patients are the same — my own journey has changed course so many times in the 10 years since my first diagnosis. For me, ask the questions you are thinking, laugh at my bad jokes, and remember your worries and stress are equally valid. Everyone has something; my cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean your journey in life is so much easier.” – Claire, 37, Nashville, TN (Metastatic Breast Cancer)

Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) raises funds to accelerate the pace of cancer research to get new therapies to patients quickly and save lives now. Since 2008, SU2C-funded research has led to six FDA approvals for new cancer therapies, bringing us closer to our goal of making every cancer patient a long-term survivor.

100% of donations received from the public benefit SU2C’s innovative cancer research programs. For more information and to support Stand Up To Cancer this Giving Tuesday, please visit StandUpToCancer.org.

Getty photo by fizkes