Writing a note to someone with cancer is a good thing to do - as long as we pay attention to the words we use. What you say, of course, depends on how close you are to the person to whom you’re writing and how open that one is about what is happening to them. Many people prefer to keep their health issues private for professional or personal reasons and that needs to be respected. If you’re not sure, perhaps you could ask someone close to them.
For someone you don’t know well or someone you haven’t seen in a long time, you might write, “I heard you were in the hospital. I don’t know the details, but I just want you to know I wish you well.”
If you know the person and the prognosis is optimistic, it could be as simple as “Hope all goes well at the hospital. I look forward to see you as soon as you’re ready for visitors.”
To someone you know well who has had a diagnosis of breast cancer and for whom the prognosis is optimistic, something like, “When I heard your news, I was devastated, then I think of all the women I see going on with their lives and doing well. I hope you’ll be joining that club.”
Always check your note for any hint of a ”should”. A statement like “You have to beat this” may mean well, but it actually puts pressure and responsibility on the patient. If they don’t get well, they can easily feel like they’ve let you down. One lung cancer patient said, “Don’t call me a fighter. That means if I don’t win, I’m a loser.”
Another reason to avoid shoulds is they can shut off communication by sending the message that you don’t want to hear anything negative. So instead of “shoulds” stick to “I”. “I think.” “I feel.” “I feel you are going to beat this.” You might even say, “If it were me, I’d be a nervous wreck.”
Address the treatment, rather than what the outcome might be. “I hope this chemotherapy/radiation period will go quickly.” “I’m not sure if you want visitors or not. Would you like me to come over? I’ll bring the dessert or do you feel like going out?” Remember anyone who isn’t feeling well, has no energy to entertain you and it is always thoughtful to add, “If you don’t feel like going out or having company, that’s okay, too. Just know I am thinking about you.”
In some instances, you can give a goal. “Our New Year’s Eve party will be complete if you can be there.” This gives a goal without imposing responsibility on the person. That is much more helpful than “You must be at our New Year’s Eve party.”
Just finding ways to say you care is what it’s all about. One lady wrote to a relative who had a mastectomy, “It hurts my heart to think of what a rough time you must be going through. I wish you healing ahead. You’re on my mind always.”
For a cousin who had a cancer recurrence, another wrote, “This isn’t fair. You’ve been through so much already. You’re in my prayers.”
When the outlook is bleak you don’t want to say, “I hope you’ll be back home quickly, but you can write notes like ”I know this is a difficult time. My thoughts are with you.” “You’ve touched my life.” “You’re my favorite neighbor – the best I could ask for. Please know I care.”
To a coworker, “I miss your particular brand of humor.”
To someone close to dying, you can relate a story about something special you’ve shared. “Today the hyacinths came up and I remember the day we planted the bulbs together.”
Maybe send an article, a story or a poem with a note, saying, “I’m not good with words, but this touched me. I wanted to share it with you.”
Offer help only if you really mean it and don’t promise more than you are willing to deliver. “I’ll call Saturday to see if I can drop off a pie that you or your visitors might enjoy.”
We always mean well, but sometimes we are thoughtless in our choice of words. Write carefully.