How to Talk to a Blood Cancer Patient

Last updated: December 2022

Recently, I was thinking about the question: How should a person speak to someone living with a blood cancer? The only answer I could come up with is “normally.”

What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

Statements we don't want to hear

There are definitely no-no statements that people battling a life-threatening experience don't want to hear. At the top of my list are the: “If only you had done x, you wouldn’t have leukemia,” remarks.

I didn’t set out to get chronic myeloid leukemia eight years ago. Heck, I’d never even heard of CML before and knew nothing about it. And yes, I ate a healthy diet, used to walk two miles every morning before work and didn’t drink, take drugs or engage in what could be called reckless behavior.

I got leukemia anyway

But lo and behold, I got cancer anyway through a rare genetic mutation whose cause is unknown.

So, to people battling illnesses of any type, know this: You did nothing wrong and did not "bring it on yourself." (I’d use profanity here but instead will acknowledge that comments to the contrary are “whacked.”)

Don't say should

Ditto for other “you should,” statements that are not based in reality. For example, it is fine for a friend to suggest you should try to rest more, keep hydrated or be sure to go to all your doctor’s appointments. I draw the line, though, at what equates to more of the blame game.

  1. “You should pray more. If you prayed more, this wouldn’t have happened to you.”
  2. “You should give up eating, x, y and z and then you would be cured.”
  3. “You should set your mind to thinking positively and your cancer will go away.”

No, it won’t.

No sad faces

On the other side of the equation, I don’t expect to see forlorn faces and people being morbid around me either.

“Oh, you poor thing.” “You look so pale/tired/ill/fill in the blank.” “Do you have a will? How much longer do you have to live?”

A nice alternative would be to ask how I’m feeling, how things are going that day and leave it at that.

Most times, I will not besiege you with a litany of complaints but other times I may need to "tell it like it is." I will do that in moderation.

Cancer patients also usually know who in their lives will listen without judgment (and/or eye rolls) and which people really don’t want to hear about it.

Act accordingly.

The downplaying deniers

The final grouping are people who insist upon trying to downplay or reduce the significance of leukemia.

“Oh come on, you can do x, y, z. Everyone gets tired.”

“Don’t be dramatic. I stubbed my toe. Or have a sore tooth. Or … And I’m doing it.”

I assure you, the “tiredness,” a blood cancer patient experiences is not a normal tired at all. The fatigue can make it difficult to function when it is extreme. Ditto for joint and other pain. It’s not the same kind of pain as pre-diagnosis. It is hard to describe.

Blood cancer patients can fight through the best we can. However, there are days when fighting is not adequate and we have to throw in the towel and hope the next day we’ll improve.

Respect that.

Back to the initial question. How should you talk to blood cancer patients? The same way you would talk to them prior to their diagnosis. They are the same person, but with an illness.

And, here’s a secret. Most of the time I just want to talk about fun things—music, memories, movies, dare I say it (hobbies? Inside joke here!)

Usually, I want to take my mind off CML even for a few minutes. I want to laugh and feel normal.

CML has changed me in many ways. Shortly after my diagnosis eight years ago, one of my friends said one of the nicest things I’d heard in a while: “You are still the same Susan.”

Yes, I am.

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