When communicating your concern to a cancer patient, it’s not just what you say but how you say it. 

For her recent sabbatical, Reno resident Rachel Kiserow spent a month volunteering at the Northern Nevada Children’s Cancer Foundation. Being around very sick children raises all kinds of emotion, but as a breast cancer survivor, Rachel knew firsthand how a patient might feel.

Six years ago, when Rachel was 36, doctors found an aggressive tumor that ultimately led to a double mastectomy. Cancer upended her schedule of Little League games, family dinners and a full-time position in the Human Resources Department at Charles River Laboratories. One of the things she has learned from this ordeal is what to say to another cancer patient, and what not to say.

There is no universally accepted social protocol for discussing cancer, and it is naturally an emotionally triggering issue for many people. One of the best pieces of advice Rachel received was to break down her routine into manageable units.

Not so helpful was having people she didn’t know all that well compare their situations to hers. “They didn’t really know me very well and they would compare me to either their mom or other loved one,” says Rachel. “And of course they aren’t apples to apples situations. I think as cancer survivors, we have to be really mindful of that.”

When it came to bad advice, or uncomfortable reactions to her story, Rachel Kiserow knew that people meant well. Cancer can bring up strong emotions in people who have been affected by it, either through their own experience or that of someone they know.

“I try to remind myself of this now that I’m healthy,” says Rachel. “A couple of years ago, I’d had a really tough day. Just a bummer of a day. I was out pumping gas and I saw [this woman] and I thought I bet she’s going through treatment. I could just tell. Instead of imposing myself onto this stranger, I went out of my way to be kind and to speak encouraging words to her without highlighting anything she might be going through.”

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