It’s the news you never want to hear: Someone you love has just received a difficult health diagnosis.
There’s pretty much nothing that can prepare you for the mess of emotions that you feel, from shock to fear to dismay. And then come the questions: What’s the prognosis? How can you help? What can you possibly say?
While you want to offer comfort and support in whatever ways you can, you also don’t want to accidentally upset your family member or friend by saying the wrong thing. And you certainly don’t want to be an unnecessary burden by asking a zillion questions or pestering them for updates every day.
It’s totally normal to feel unsure in this situation, explains Jesse Fann, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine and director of psychiatry and psychology services at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA).
Fann, who specializes in helping patients cope with their medical issues, says the important thing is to be present for your loved one when and how they most want support.
The coping process is different for every person, so the way you show your support will be, too.
“When people have a diagnosis, there are a wide range of emotions that the person can be going through,” notes Andrew Coveler, M.D., an oncologist at the University of Washington Medical Center and SCCA. “You want to find out where people are and go from there.”
To help you figure out how to be there for your loved one, Fann and Coveler share their top dos and don’ts for this tough situation.
Don’t say things you can’t control
Your initial reaction upon hearing the news might be to blurt out something reassuring. While you mean well — and are probably voicing your desired outcome for the situation — this isn’t the right approach.
“It’s best to avoid reacting by giving them false hope or assurances like, ‘I’m sure this will turn out fine,’ or telling them they need to be positive in order to beat the diagnosis,” Fann explains. “This can dissuade the patient from sharing their concerns and true feelings.”
Also, try not to jump in with survival stories of people you know who beat cancer or overcame a serious health concern in the past. Your intent might be to inspire, but what you’re actually doing is shifting the conversation away from the very person who needs your support.
Instead, Fann says, listen.
Your loved one has already told you they’re going through a rough situation, so let them dictate the pace and tone of the conversation. You can certainly ask them questions about the diagnosis and treatment, but don’t pry if they don’t want to share the details in that moment. The news may still be too raw or overwhelming.
“When the patient is clearly struggling, you want to avoid common phrases like, ‘How are you doing?’ Rather, use greetings like, ‘It’s so good to see you,’” Fann adds.
In the end, what you want to convey is that you’re there for them however they want you to be, whether that’s to take their mind off of the diagnosis, cry with them or even sit together in silence while they try to process this life-altering event. Sometimes they may just want to know that they’re not alone.
Do offer to help and follow through with it
Once you’ve absorbed the news and listened with a sympathetic ear, your next inclination might be to offer help. Just be sure that it’s an offer you make good on, Fann says.
“Sometimes people won’t ask for help because they feel like they’re a burden,” he explains. “Try to jump in to help and watch closely for signs that your friend needs help.”
This can mean taking care of transportation to and from the doctor’s office, organizing a meal train during treatment or taking care of their kids while they go to appointments. Or it might be helping them with financial and legal advice, offering support to their caregiver or even tagging along with them to visit the doctor.
“Attending appointments provides emotional and social support, and it helps to take notes and coordinate the complex details of medical treatment,” Fann says. “It also allows the patient to talk through difficult decisions and bounce ideas off someone they trust. Always ask the patient, though, as they may want to attend appointments alone sometimes.”
Another way to contribute is to help with the small stuff that often gets overlooked.
“You can do mundane things that other people won’t necessarily think to help with,” Coveler adds. “You can say, ‘Hey, you want me to do your laundry? Clean your bathroom? Do your shopping?’”
Look for subtle ways that you can offer support. For example, if someone gets tired easily during treatment and can’t go out to do their favorite activities, you can offer to spend time together at their home instead.
And if you don’t live in the same city as your loved one, calling, emailing and sending cards can provide an emotional lift. You can also offer to be a communication point person who updates other friends and family via an email thread or phone tree. That way your loved one isn’t having to field 20 different calls and repeat the same information over and over again.
Whatever ways you’re able to help, the most important thing is that you do.
Don’t force someone to accept your help
Let’s say you offer help on several occasions but get a “no, thanks” from your loved one each time. Don’t take it personally.
While you’re just trying to show your support and have the best intentions, remember that your family member or friend is coping with their diagnosis in their own way.
“Most people aren’t used to asking for help, so it may take time and practice for them to eventually do so,” Fann says.
Other times, your loved one may just want to maintain as much normalcy and independence as possible by doing things on their own, Coveler adds.
Rather than force them to accept your help, try to recognize when they simply need time and space. You can continue reaching out so they know that you’re thinking about them, but don’t insist on helping to the point that it becomes a bother or annoyance.
Eventually, when they really do need help, they may think of you and finally take you up on your offer.
Do offer a touchpoint to everyday life
Guess what? Your friend who just received that difficult diagnosis still likes binge-watching Netflix shows. And talking about sports. And eating ice cream.
The point is, no matter what the health issue, your loved one is still a multidimensional person with various interests beyond just their illness.
“Sometimes people get tired of talking about their illness and would rather talk about other stuff,” Coveler says.
If you get that sense from your friend, follow their lead. Chat about what you used to before their diagnosis or engage them in a favorite activity. Bring over a movie to watch together, try out a recipe from a new cookbook or tell them about something funny your toddler said.
“A serious medical diagnosis and the treatment can be unpredictable and make patients feel extremely vulnerable and like they have very little control over their lives,” Fann says. “Remember the importance of humor, when appropriate, and help them stay engaged in activities that they enjoy.”
Put more simply, just keep being their friend.