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What to Say to Someone Who Is Ill

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It can be hard to find the right words to say to someone who has received a devastating diagnosis. Lisa B. Adams should know – she writes about her metastatic breast cancer and "grief, loss, life and family" on her self-titled blog.  Lisa says “meaning well isn’t always enough…It’s important to remember: it’s not about you. It’s about the person with the illness…What you don’t want is for the ill person to have to be consoling the listener or trying to minimize the seriousness of what they’re feeling.” Adams cites phrases that generally don't sit well with someone who has a life-threatening condition, such as “but you don’t look sick”, and offers advice for how to be supportive. She also reassures readers not to over think their responses either. “You don’t need to have many things to say. A few good options will do.”

Letty Cottin Pogrebin also knows what words can offer comfort and which ones don’t when you are dealing with a serious illness. She was treated for breast cancer in 2009 and 2010 and went on to write a book: “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.” In an interview for the New York Times' New Old Age blog, she said she welcomed phrases like “what are you feeling?” and “it’s so good to see you” rather than a simple “how are you?” When she was ill, Pogrebin wanted honesty, simplicity and directness from people rather than words of wisdom, politeness or courtesies.

CFAH president and founder, Jessie Gruman, has received five life-threatening diagnoses and undergone many treatments for them. She has also spoken with hundreds of people about how they manage the challenges of their own illnesses. From these experiences and conversations, Jessie offers these six tips to help you comfort a friend or loved one who is sick*:

  • Acknowledge our situation
  • Offer help only if you can deliver
  • Guard our privacy
  • Listen to us
  • Remember that hope is a gift
  • Ensure our dignity

Jessie says:

Some say that having cancer is like climbing a steep mountain. No matter how much you love a person with cancer, you can't climb the mountain for us, though you would like to. But you can make sure that we have nutritious food. You can help us find path markers and steady us when we stumble. And when our spirits sag, your patience, love, and respect can encourage us to take the next step and then the next one.

*Parade magazine, October 2008

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Conversation Continues feature ongoing discussions or news on current health topics with links to related materials.  They are part of the Center for Advancing Health’s portfolio of free, evidence-based coverage of what it takes to find good care and make the most of it.


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Cancer   Promote your Health  


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