CANCER AWARENESS: Listening goes a long way

If you’re on the receiving end — either personally or as a family — of a cancer diagnosis, life turns upside down for a while. And for friends and acquaintances on the outside looking in, it’s hard to know what to say or how to help.

Sue Ellen Pabst, a local therapist and owner of Transitions: Counseling Services in Greenville, offers some suggestions on what to say and not to say to someone struggling with tragedy or trauma or going through a very difficult time.


When people find out you or your loved one has cancer, sometimes you don’t hear from them again. Often this is because they don’t know what to say. Pabst said when you’re struggling with what the right words are, just be honest and let them know you don’t know what to say but that you’re thinking about them.

The main thing is to listen.

“It’s not so much what to say, but more how to listen,” Pabst said. “There’s an art to listening. The art is how you let it be safe for somebody to talk.”

Many times individuals or families dealing with a disease aren’t really looking for comfort, Pabst said. What they’re looking for is to be heard, which can help them process what is happening.

Pabst suggested good ways to invite someone into conversation would be to ask if they have a good doctor or medical team or to say something like, “This must be the hardest thing you’ve had to go through. Then, Pabst said. “stop and let them talk.”


People often say things like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” But, Pabst said, this has become meaningless. It’s important to gauge your offer of help on what you know about the person and your friendship with them. Tell them you would like to do something “and then state what you can do. ‘I can run errands for you during the week;’ ‘I can make a dinner for you on the weekend.’ Be clear about your availability. I had a friend when my mom died who came and cleaned my whole apartment.”

In addition, keep in touch throughout treatment and recovery. Many times support is abundant when someone is newly diagnosed, but it wans as time goes by.


There also are things that should not be said, even though they may be meant to comfort. Pabst said these things include statements such as, “God has a plan,” or “God is teaching you a lesson,” or “God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle.”

“Even if they’re spiritual, you don’t know where they are with God,” Pabst said. “To say anything related to God is risky.”

Also, avoid trying to relate their situation to something in your life. “You don’t want to turn the conversation into your experience,” Pabst said. “People are in the it’s-happening-to-me mode, not you.”

In an attempt to show support or admiration for how someone is dealing with a situation, people often will say, “I could never go through that;” or “I could never do what you’re doing.”

“It’s not choice,” Pabst said. “People get through it.”

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