"People with cancer often feel quite alone and isolated, because others may not be in tune with what they are going through," says Kimberly A. Stump-Sutliff, MSN, RN, AOCNS associate medical editor for the American Cancer Society. Part of the problem is that friends and family members typically don't know how to properly comfort the person who is ill. As a result, other people's words and actions can end up making the situation even worse. Or, they may just avoid the sick person entirely because they don't know what to say or do, which isn't a good tactic either.

Conversation Starters

To help you navigate this emotionally-charged territory in a more effective way, Stump-Sutliff outlines common mistakes and offers some supportive alternatives to help someone with cancer feel heard, comforted and understood.

Mistake #1: Falling apart so the patient ends up comforting you

It's natural to feel upset about the diagnosis, but remember that the person who is ill is in need of the comfort right now.

Better: If you're having trouble handling the news, Stump-Sutliff says that it's okay to admit the truth and let the patient know you need some time to sort through your emotions. You should also make an effort to put your own worries aside to listen and try to understand how he feels. Non-verbal communication can also be welcome. "Touching, smiling, and sending warm looks can be all that's needed to get past the barriers of the illness to the person you know and love," she says.

Mistake #2: Faking optimism

If you try to pretend that nothing is wrong—or pressure the patient with cancer to stay positive—you may be discounting her fears and concerns and instead of reassuring her, make her feel even more alone and scared.

Better: Listen to the person's concerns and let her know that you are there. By verbally expressing your willingness to let the person vent, it can help her process some of her thoughts and show her you care.

Mistake #3: Passing judgment on decisions in regard to treatment and lifestyle changes

How someone handles his illness is very personal and there's no right or wrong path to take. But by telling someone he is making the wrong choices, or blaming that person for making choices that could have caused the illness, you are only making the situation worse.

Better: Help the patient by supporting his decisions. If he wants your opinion on the options, spend some time trying to understand the information so you can give a thoughtful response. Just be sure that if you share your views, you'll be willing to respect the patient's final decision—even if it isn't what you recommended.

Mistake #4: Treating the person with cancer differently

She may not be able to do all of the things she did before she became ill, but she's still the same person and it's important to treat her as normally as possible.

Better: "Every person with cancer appreciates the friend or family member who remembers that they used to be a person without cancer and that they still have interests and parts of life that have nothing to do with the cancer," says Stump-Sutliff. "Therefore, try to relate to them in the same way you have in the past. Do the things you used to enjoy together, but use your judgment about the person's energy level."

Mistake #5: Believing that the person will die soon

"It's important for you to know that cancer is not a death sentence," Stump-Sutliff says. "If you believe that the person with cancer is beyond hope or help, you might not offer them your support."

Better: Remember, many people with cancer go on living for some years, even though there will be changes in their lives. "For these people, cancer can be a lot like diabetes or heart disease—a chronic illness that is mostly controlled with treatment," Stump-Sutliff says. Therefore, plan to be there for the long haul and know that the person with cancer (and the caregiver, too!) may need ongoing support and reassurance for years to come. Make it a point to check in regularly to see how the person is doing and ask how you can help and what she might need from you.

A Final Note

Beyond what you say—or don't say—to someone with cancer, Stump-Sutliff says that it's important to be yourself when you're with them. "Let your words and your actions come from your heart." She adds that sometimes the simplest expressions of concern can end up being the most meaningful ones.

For more information about supporting someone with cancer, she recommends the American Cancer Society's "Listen With Your Heart" and "When Someone You Know Has Cancer."

Kimberly A. Stump-Sutliff, MSN, RN, AOCNS, reviewed this article.