Let me preface this posting by saying that I'm just as guilty as anyone else of saying the exact wrong thing to a sick person. Also, this is based purely on my reactions, no scientific research has gone into this, so it could be totally off the wall. And finally, if you recognize yourself here, please keep in mind that I still love you. =)
But with all that said, since it's often awkward to talk to someone with a serious illness, especially when they've just been diagnosed, I thought I'd throw out some of the things I've learned by being a the recipient of a whole bunch of loving attempts.
1. Never say, "Are you terminal?" or even worse, "Are you going to die?" (true story). If you really must know, it is better to say, "What is your prognosis?" But that question is better asked after the patient has had time to meet with doctors and get a grip on reality. It took time for me to come to grips with death as a possibility. Don't be the one to bring it up.
2. Everyone knows someone with cancer. By the time the patient has talked to 100 people, they have heard a 150 stories of others with cancer. It gets old, and even can (not saying it always does, but can) begin to trivialize their own experience. But it is sometimes helpful to know that others have gone through the same thing. So after considerable thought, here's my recommendation: Only offer up someone's story if you are very close to them (like a 1st-generation relative or close friend.) Unless you have a really good reason, skip the small talk about your neighbor's sister-in-law.
3. This is related to the second rule, but unless you have a really good reason, only share the story of your close and personal friend or relative if the person survived and the cancer didn't come back. (I even broke that rule recently.) The first few days after my diagnosis, I heard at least five stories of people who had either died or were fighting a second round. Depressing. Depressing. Depressing.
4. My all-time favorite thing not to say: "So are they going to cut your boobies off?" No commentary needed.