Survivor, doctor offer advice on how to talk about cancer

Fans across the county have been sending messages of love and support following the announcement of Gord Downie's cancer diagnosis. But when cancer hits closer to home, finding the right thing to say can feel like a struggle. Here's what two people with personal experience with cancer advise.

Canadians talk about the disease, and what to say, in wake of Gord Downie's diagnosis

While fans have been offering support following Gord Downie's diagnosis, many people have difficulty knowing how to approach a conversation with a cancer patient. (Canadian Press)

With Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie's recent announcement he's been diagnosed with a terminal form of brain cancer, fans across the county have been sending messages of love and support.

But when cancer hits closer to home, finding the right thing to say can sometimes feel like a struggle.

Here's what two people with personal experience with cancer advise.

'I had to make them feel better'

Cancer survivor Peter Mallette says people with experience dealing with the disease are often more direct in their questions. (Information Morning/CBC)
Peter Mallette was diagnosed with prostate cancer more than a decade ago, and is now a regional director with Prostate Cancer Canada.

He says you can often tell who's had a close encounter with cancer — either personally or through a loved one — just by the way they approach the subject.

"The people who didn't have an experience with cancer pitied me, they felt sorry for me," he said.

"And quite often they would say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry' and look and me, tilt their head a little bit, and it was up to me to continue that conversation. And I felt many times that I had to make them feel better."

Mallette said he found that made it hard for him to stay positive. 

Conversely, he said people who had experience with cancer were often more direct with their questions, asking things like what type of cancer he had, who his doctor was, or how they could help.

He said this led to more engaged conversations that felt more productive.

'Just be yourself'

Those who deal with cancer patients every day, such as Halifax radiation oncologist Dr. Rob Rutledge, say being authentic is crucial.

"Just be yourself," he said.

Oncologist Dr. Rob Rutledge says being authentic when talking with someone living with cancer is crucial. (
Rutledge, who also hosts weekend retreats for people working through the psychological stress of a cancer diagnosis, said when friends and loved ones act differently, the effect can be isolating. 

He noted people will even go as far hiding good news in their own lives because they don't want their friend with cancer to feel badly.

'Life doesn't have to revolve around cancer'

But he said carrying on as usual is often the better approach.

"It's almost as if it normalizes the experience," he said.

"Our life doesn't have to revolve all around cancer. We can actually talk about the things we used to talk about. We can tease each other and we can just be ourselves again, and that is normalizing and can be very helpful to people."

But most of all, both Rutledge and Mallette agree that if you're not sure how to act or what to say, acknowledge that — and go from there.

About the Author

Blair Sanderson


Blair Sanderson is a nationally syndicated current affairs reporter for CBC Radio. He's based in Halifax, where he's worked for 10 years.


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