What do you say to someone struggling with cancer? Or a mental illness? Or another chronic disease?

If you've ever tried to purchase a card in the greeting card aisle, you've probably noticed that the cards have two gears — sickeningly sweet and trying to be funny. Those cards are fine for a co-worker's retirement or a 2-year-old's birthday. But what about when you really need a message of friendship or want to help a friend through a tough time? Try to find a card for someone dealing with cancer or any other long-term health issue and you're likely to come up short.

Designer Emily McDowell knows this all too well. Diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 24, she recalls the loneliness she felt when friends and family kept their distance. “The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called ‘sir’ by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo,” McDowell writes on her website. “It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.”

Empathy card, sorry I haven't been in touchNow 38 and in remission, McDowell decided to put her design skills to work to fill this need. “Get well soon” cards “don’t make sense when someone might not,” McDowell writes. “Sympathy cards can make people feel like you think they’re already dead. A '[bleep] cancer’ card is a nice sentiment, but when I had cancer, it never really made me feel better. And I never personally connected with jokes about being bald or getting a free boob job, which is what most ‘cancer cards’ focus on.”

cancer support card

McDowell's designs eloquently walk that fine line between light-hearted and completely serious, while managing to inject humor into a humorless situation. 

Some of the cards are cancer-specific, but most would be a good fit for any difficult health situation a loved one might be facing.

one more chemo treatment card

McDowell told me in an email that her personal favorite is the lemons card (pictured below.) I can see why. Here's her write-up about the card on her website:

"Why is it that when you're sick with a life-threatening disease, so many people feel the need to tell you about someone they know who DIED OF THE THING YOU HAVE? It's crazy how often this happens. Not only is it unhelpful, it's actually quite terrifying. Please, everyone, stop doing this. If you buy a sick person this card, I promise they will a) laugh, and b) feel relieved that you understand."

when live gives you lemons empathy card

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