Cancer Survivors Can Help the Newly Diagnosed


When friends I haven’t heard from for many years suddenly call me, I wait for them to say, “Bob, I just got diagnosed with cancer.”

This is not unique to me. People who have had cancer are often asked for advice by those who are newly diagnosed.

Similar conversations take place in cancer support groups. The people attending for the first time are like sponges, soaking up every word. What survivors say to the newcomers can range from being helpful to being terrifying.

Here are the two most important guidelines for survivors trying to help:

Bob Riter
Bob Riter
  • Do more listening than talking. The conversation isn’t about you – it’s about the person who was just diagnosed. When someone tells you that they were just been diagnosed with cancer, they’re looking more for understanding than for answers.
  • It is fine to say, “This is what I did,” but do not say, “This is what you should do.”

People who are newly diagnosed tend to worry about “what if” scenarios. They ask themselves: What if the cancer has spread? What if the treatment doesn’t work? What if my car breaks down and I can’t get to treatment?

These thoughts are not always rational, but they are understandable. Survivors don’t need to make the newly diagnosed feel even more anxious by sharing every bad experience they’ve ever had or heard about.

You don’t need to be irrationally positive, but you shouldn’t be aggressively negative either.

And no matter how serious the diagnosis, it’s important for the person to maintain hope. Not only hope for a cure, but hope for a smooth treatment process.

In sum, survivors can best help the newly diagnosed by listening and supporting. As the Shaker saying goes, “Let your words be few and seasoned with grace.”


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.
Original publication date: August 5, 2017

Bob Riter is the Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes. He can be reached at [email protected]