What to Say When Cancer Returns

Bob Riter
Bob Riter

I recently gave a talk at a conference for health professionals on how to support patients with cancer.

One attendee said, “I know how to help patients when they come in for treatment when they are first diagnosed. But I stumble over my words when a patient comes back for treatment because they’ve had a recurrence. What can I say to help them?”

It’s an excellent question. When cancer returns, the focus usually shifts from curing the cancer to controlling the cancer. It’s an entirely different situation from the initial diagnosis, and both patient and health professionals know it.

The patient is likely discouraged because their prognosis may not be good, their financial situation may be precarious, and they’re facing more treatment that wasn’t much fun the first time around.

As evidenced by the question at the conference, even health professionals can feel awkward knowing what to say.

A woman at the conference raised her hand and said, “What I say is that I’m sorry that you’ve had a recurrence, but we are here for you and we will take good care of you.”

It’s a simple, honest response that I hope to hear if I ever have a recurrence. The phrase, “I’m sorry,” is human and caring.

And “being here for you” and “taking good care of you” are words that truly comforting.

When cancer comes back, you know the future is uncertain and you aren’t reassured by hearing someone say, “You’ll beat this.”

You are reassured when your loved ones and caregivers recognize your reality and are with you for whatever comes.

Reprinted with Permission of the Ithaca Journal
Original Publication Date: June 1, 2013