Last year a member of my family was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately this person received treatment and is now doing well. During the anxious period when we first learned of this health issue, and friends and family were informed, I was struck by the wide range of reactions people had to the news, but not surprised. Some simply were uncomfortable learning of the health situation and just didn't know what to say, while others were afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they ended up saying something that came across as less than supportive.
I realized that although everyone genuinely cared this is just one of those awkward and challenging conversational topics, right up there with death and job loss. More times than not, saying something (even if it is merely "I'm sorry to hear this" or "I don't know what to say but please know I'm thinking about you") is more comforting than going silent or avoiding the person.
Although you should say what comes from your heart, it's especially important to be a good listener. You can read some tips for how to do that here. Be mindful of your body language, and let the person set the tone. Ask questions, but not too many because you don't want to be burdensome or overwhelming. Be careful about dispensing advice. Although you may have heard about a cutting edged or exotic cancer treatment, hold off on that until later. Understand the full range of emotions that the person might be experiencing. They may feel sad, anxious, disbelieving, confused, overwhelmed, and even angry. Don't personalize any of these feelings and emotions.
Here's what not to say:
1. "I know how you feel". Most likely you don't know exactly how the person feels. Even if you've dealt with a similar health issue, you still don't know the other person's specific feelings. Rather than stating that you know how they feel, simply ask, "How do you feel"?
2. "Let me know if I can do anything". Although your intent is good, the offer is rather vague and puts that person in a position to then have to make a request for help. It might be embarrassing for the person to ask for or he or she might feel overwhelmed with dealing with the health issue and not really in a position to know what needs to be done otherwise. So, be specific in your gesture. You might say, "I'd like to bring you dinner on Wednesday night -is that good for your schedule"?
3. "I had a friend with that type of cancer". Although saying this is your attempt to show you understand and are familiar with the illness, the person might feel alienated. Stay focused on the person in front of you and hold off on comparisons.
4. 'You'll be fine and back to your old self soon". Naturally people want to be optimistic, and that is a good attitude to have. However, saying things such as, "Don't worry, I'm sure you'll be fine" is just reducing the significance of the serious illness and disregarding how the person might actually feel. Rather, say, "I'm really sorry to hear about this. I hope you will be okay."
5. "How long do you have"? This is a heavy question and one that the person may not want to discuss or may not even know the answer to. If the person wants to discuss the prognosis then let them bring it up, at least initially. But by all means, do not ask such a question.
6. "I had such a stressful day". This is really about them, not you and by talking about your own issues you'll be putting them in a position to comfort you and that isn't fair. So find someone else to talk to about your own problems and focus on your loved one for now.
So, if you find yourself in the position of talking to a friend or relative recently diagnosed with a serious illness, be a friend, listen, and when in doubt, simply ask if they want to talk about it. If they don't, that's okay. Sometimes a hug is more powerful than any words can ever be.
For more tips on dealing with anxiety-provoking situations and stress check out my book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.