What to Say (and Not Say) to Someone With Cancer

The most important thing, when speaking to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, is not to come from a place of fear. This is about restoring hope and comfort to someone who has been through a whirlwind of pain, with potentially more discomfort looming in the future.

Take a moment to steady yourself. Become as calm as possible using whichever strategies you know. Perhaps it’s losing yourself in prayer or offering your stress to a higher power. Maybe you should go for a walk or a bicycle ride to process your own emotions before you confront the person at the center of the storm. Whatever you do, don’t react instantaneously to a circumstance that inevitably takes time. You’ll be happier and grateful that you didn’t bring your own worry to the person who has enough on their plate to deal with. That being said, when you are ready to partake in discussion with the person who has cancer, here’s a handy cheat-sheet to avoid common pitfalls and charge your conversation with as much love as possible.

What Not To Say To Someone With Cancer

What not to say to someone with cancer.What not to say to someone with cancer.

1.It'll be alright.

Think of it this way. The person you are talking to probably feels like they are caught in a maelstrom of trouble. Nothing about what they see, hear or think feels OK. You telling them “it’s alright” invalidates their experience, which could potentially cause a dangerous regression in their ability to accept these painful circumstances. Avoiding reality does not give the cancer patient the strength that they need to fight. To have a chance at beating cancer, they’ll need to channel as much strength as humanly possible — emotionally, physically and spiritually — which requires meeting the circumstances head-on, with spartan blood.

2. I know how you feel.

No, you don’t. Even if you have been through something you think is similar, you have absolutely no idea how the person you are talking to is feeling right now.

Perhaps they watched a close family member die slowly and are petrified that their fate will be the same. Maybe they aren’t worried about their own life, but are paralyzed with fear about what will happen to their kids. You have no idea where their mind is until you ask, and even then, each person’s experience is so unique, so shaped by forces seen and unseen, that there’s no chance you can empathize your way into solving anything.

The best you can do is ask. Listen. Cancer is an intensely personal struggle, though it requires community, because the only person who can fight it, on a flesh-and-bones level, is the person who has been diagnosed.

Also, though you may not know how they feel, don’t underestimate the effectiveness of a few well-timed, sympathetic grunts. We’re serious. It can work wonders, and will help keep the channel open to ensure the cancer patient feels safe enough to come to you next time they need to talk.

3. My mom (dad, sister, friend, neighbor, ex-husband’s grandma, etc) had cancer, and… 

Nope, nope, nope. Similar to the above, this kind of statement brings in a whole heap of worry that doesn’t apply to this situation. This person’s cancer is not like that, and it never will be. Try your hardest to focus on the situation at hand. If it brings up old memories for you of past people you’ve known who’ve had cancer, consider speaking to a different friend, relative or even therapist about it, rather than opening that can of worms in this cancer patient’s house.


4. Let me know if there's anything I can do.

This statement is perhaps the most misused of them all, because it comes from such a sweet intent. We get it. You want the cancer patient to know you’re there, but you don’t want to come on too strong. What you don’t understand is that this statement actually places a burden on the cancer patient.

They’re going through this for the first time, too. Chances are, they feel a bit (or a lot) overwhelmed, and the idea of figuring out what to ask for is demoralizing. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, because they don’t know how to ask for what they don’t know they need. Ultimately, it can leave the cancer patient feeling lost and alone.

Instead, try offering something tangible, and give them the freedom to take you up on it any time. Something like, “I know you love my sweet potato casserole. Consider this a standing offer: I’ll make it for you, whenever you want.” Or maybe, “you know, I don’t work Wednesdays or Thursdays. If you need a ride, or someone to sit with you, on either of those days, I’m your gal.”

This not only provides concrete evidence that you’re available to help, but it could be the phone-a-friend your cancer patient needs, at the time they need it most, somewhere down the line.

What to (definitely!) Say To Someone With Cancer

What to say to someone with cancer.What to say to someone with cancer.

If you made it this far, we want to cheer for you. Coming alongside someone who has cancer can be tough, triggering, and emotionally taxing, and we’re proud to have you reading this article. We’re proud that you care enough to research what to say. Here are a handful of surefire slogans that will position both you and your loved one for conversational success. What defines a “successful” conversation with a cancer patient? You’ll know it when you walk away. If you feel that warm glow of trust, and they feel safer than before, then you’ve played your condolence cards right. Good for you (and them)!

Pro tip: These statements can be used multiple times, even within the same conversation. Sometimes what a cancer patient needs is repetitive sentiments, to prove that they are not alone.

1. I’m here for you.

Only say it if you mean it. What does “here for you” mean? It means you will pick up the phone when they call, or return it later if you’re momentarily busy. It means you will listen without crowding their thoughts with your own preconceived notions. It means you will not run away when the going gets tough.

Someone with cancer most likely feels out of control, and even stunned by how helpless they have suddenly become. What they thought they knew about life — stability, physical stamina, the comforting routine of a predictable schedule — is no more. Simply put, it probably feels like the rug got pulled out from under their feet. Or that the floor collapsed beneath them. So your job is to show that you are constant. You are not a variable that can be warped or deleted by the monster of cancer. Be a rock, be a stronghold, be the safe house the hero goes to when everything else explodes. They will thank you later. It is the best gift you can give. 

2. I'm not going anywhere.

Similar to “I’m here for you,” this statement assures the diagnosed patient that they will not be left alone in the cold. Part of the horror of cancer involves entering into the unknown. Your presence, friendship and commitment to remaining present will be an extraordinary light in these otherwise dark times. 

3. I love you.

This statement explains itself, but it’s too perfect not to include. Even if you think it’s obvious that you love this person, saying it mid-conversation (instead of just tacked on at the end) is a constant reminder of the strongest force in the universe, which they will rely upon in moments, days, weeks, months (or more) of weakness.

Say “I love you,” say it often, say it when you don’t think it’s needed. The energy it conveys is more powerful than you may realize.


4. You matter to me.

Again, obvious, but super important. This is especially true because a patient in the medical system can sometimes feel like they are just one of a limitless number. Doctors do their best to give each patient attention, but the reality is that duty calls them swiftly away.

Help your friend or loved one remember that their existence is not just a chart on a clipboard or a prescription for meds. A good follow-up would be to invite them to join you for an activity or outing that could help make them feel normal, even if just for an hour or two. A serendipitous coffee date can remind the cancer patient that they are a multi-dimensional person with intrigue and interests outside of the day-to-day cancer grind.

Telling them “you matter” is one thing. Showing them with acts and signs of service is another, more potent way to communicate care. 

Other Things to Say to Someone with Cancer

Here are a few more uplifting and constructive things to say when your friend or loved one
decides to share with you.
● “Thank you for sharing with me.”
● “I’m praying for you.” (Even better: ask them specifically what you should be praying for.)
● “Take all the time you need.”
● Offer to perform a specific household task like laundry, dog walking, etc.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that it’s not just about what you say. A hug is often the best medicine for someone who is hurting. Hold them as they cry. This is one of the most powerful gifts you can give.

Did you find this article helpful? What sentiments have been meaningful to your or someone you know going through a hard time? Let us know in the comments below.