What to say (and what not to say) when a friend has cancer

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What do you say when someone you  care about is battling cancer?

Dr. Jennifer Kilkus, a clinical psychologist at the WellStar Kennestone Cancer Center in Marietta, Georgia, says many people don't even know where to begin.

WATCH: What to say (and not say) to a cancer patient

"And they don't know it's okay to say, 'This is hard, and I don't know what to say, but I'm here.  What do you need?" she says.

And, Dr. Kilkus says, be gentle.

"Be mindful of the fact that you're talking with someone who is going through something that is very scary and uncertain," she says.

So, what should you not say to someone facing a serious illness? 

First, Kilkus says, don't shrug off what they're going through.

"Don't say that everything is going to be okay, and it's not really a big deal, or 'At least you don't have to go through chemo,'" if someone is getting radiation or surgery," Kilkus says. "It's sort of that dismissive, 'Well, it could be worse.'"

And avoid saying things like, "I know how you feel." 

Because, really, you don't.

Something else to steer clear of?  Comparing your health issues to what they're going through.

"And don't share the stories about your grandmother that also went through cancer, but she died," Kilkus says.  "That's not a helpful thing to tell someone who is in the middle of their treatment course."

Kilkus says we share stories as a way to connect .

"But that might not always be helpful to someone who is in the middle of treatment, in the middle of that fear," she says.

Avoid questioning another person's treatment choices in you're not intimately involved in their medical care.

And, If you read about a so-called "miracle cure" or alternative cancer treatment, don't assume someone going through the rigors of chemotherapy  or radiation wants to hear what you've uncovered.

Kilkus says wait until the person asks before you share your ideas.

Finally, Dr. Kilkus says, don't play the blame game.

"(Avoid) saying, 'If you had only done this, then that would have happened to you.'" she says. " That's actually very common with the patients that I work with.  What people need to hear right now are messages of support."

So, be there, be gentle, and, Kilkus says, the words will come.

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