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July 2018

What to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer

When someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, it might feel like something has shifted in your relationship. Whether it’s a family member, friend, or coworker, it’s normal to feel as if you suddenly don’t know how to act or what to say to this person. You might also be overwhelmed with your own feelings about what’s happening.

No matter what, communication is key. He or she is still the person you’ve always known. Try to continue to treat your loved one like you normally would. You don’t have to talk about cancer every time you’re together.

Two men talking with each other

Do’s and don’ts when talking to someone who has cancer

When talking to someone who was recently diagnosed with or is in treatment for cancer, the most important thing you can do is be genuine. Here are some heartfelt things you could say:

  • “I’m really sorry you’re going through this.”

  • “How are you feeling?”

  • “I’m here for you any time you want to talk.”

  • “I just want you to know that I care about you and am thinking about you.”

At the same time, you may want to avoid saying certain things because they can be upsetting for someone who has been recently diagnosed with cancer or is facing a recurrence. For example, try not to say:

  • “I know how you feel.” While you may have been through difficult experiences before, you can’t know exactly how the person feels.

  • “Stay positive.” It’s great to be supportive and encouraging. However, sometimes people with cancer experience fear and sadness. You don’t want to make them feel like those feelings don’t matter.

  • “You look pale today.” During cancer treatment, a person’s appearance will most likely change. The person is probably very aware of it, and pointing those changes out can be embarrassing.

  • “So-and-so told me you have cancer.” Unless the person has told you directly or you know for a fact that the diagnosis is public information, it’s probably best not to say anything. If you confirm that it is public information, then you could say something such as, “I heard what you’re going through. I’m really sorry.”

  • “You’re so strong.” Even if it’s true, it can put extra pressure on the person to always act that way. Sometimes he or she might not feel very strong or brave, and that’s OK, too.

How you can help

Saying “Let me know if I can help” isn’t always that helpful. People in crisis may not know how you could best help, or they feel awkward asking you to do something for them. Instead, offer to help in specific ways. You could:

  • Deliver a meal or set up a meal train. You can use free websites such as Meal Train to coordinate meal deliveries.

  • Offer to babysit, host a play date, or pick their kids up from day care on specific days.

  • When you’re running an errand, such as to the grocery store or drugstore, ask if there’s anything you could pick up for them.

  • Offer to drive them to and from appointments and stay with them if they wish.

Above all, let them know that you care about them and continue to show up in their lives. Talking is important, but one of the very best things you can do is listen.

Online Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 12/7/2017
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