A cancer diagnosis. Those are hard words to hear. And it’s a hard situation to talk about.
Upon learning someone has cancer, many people don’t know what to do or what to say. Afraid they might say the wrong things, some people may resort to doing nothing at all. However, research supports that giving a cancer patient on-going emotional support can make an important difference in their emotional and physical well-being.
Showing care to someone with cancer is an emotional and meaningful part of Spoonful of Comfort’s story. Today, our company is privileged to help other people send caring gifts and words of comfort when they can’t be there to share them in person.
We’ve prepared this article using the insights of people who have cancer, their caregivers, and health professionals. We hope it helps you feel prepared and confident knowing what to say to someone with cancer.
1. Prepare yourself to talk about cancer
Knowing what to say to someone who has cancer comes more easily when you prepare in advance—and that means preparing yourself and the person you plan to visit.
You can get ready by thinking about how you’d feel in their position. What is this person like? What do you imagine they’re thinking about? Use this knowledge to direct your conversation. It will be far more meaningful than asking, “How are you?”
Asking questions about their family, their home, or their job will make for a much more interesting conversation than overused comments and questions. Try to have a few topics in mind when you go to visit.
Practically, put that person’s well-being first. Ask permission to visit and what time would be convenient. Be flexible, knowing that they may need to cancel or reschedule according to how they feel. Wear a mask while visiting, as cancer and chemo treatments make patients more susceptible to infection.
Make your visit knowing that it could be for just a few minutes or even a few hours. It’s important to respect that person’s boundaries and wishes for a visit. Think about what cues you might pick up on to notice when he or she seems tired, overwhelmed, or in need of space for a while. Before you go, prepare in your mind what it means to have a visit that’s about them, not you.
2. Be a good listener to someone who has cancer
What do you talk about with someone who has cancer? Let them be the guide. Depending on how they’re feeling, what they’ve been through today, and even their mood at the moment, they can offer cues to what they want (or need) to talk about.
When possible, visit at a time that you can have a little privacy and few distractions. If they’re in the hospital, avoid times when they know they’ll have calls or other visitors, or when their medical staff might be making rounds. Find the moments they could use the company: maybe during meal time or during a daily walk.
As you find the right time and topics to talk about cancer, practice some habits that make anyone a good listener:
- Make eye contact, but don’t stare.
- Give your full attention. Don’t interrupt. Don’t be distracted by your phone, the TV, etc.
- Show your support through body and facial expressions. You can say a lot by touching their hand or responding with an empathetic smile, frown, or even an eye roll.
- Accept their emotions. Let them cry or laugh or vent and let them know it’s okay to express the feelings they’re having.
- Avoid giving advice. If they ask for it, share what you know, but don’t make things up or speculate if you don’t know the real facts.
- Don’t use humor or make light of things unless they’re doing it themselves.
Sometimes the best advice when talking about cancer is knowing that it’s okay not to talk about cancer. Be willing to accept the silence, especially when the person you’re talking to is tired, emotional, or not feeling well. Quiet moments can feel good, too. Don’t feel pressured to fill your visit with words. Your presence may be the very comfort that’s needed.
3. Remember everyone’s experience with cancer is different
Even when you’re prepared with something to say about cancer, it might not be what’s needed at the moment. Every day is different. Every person is different. Every cancer diagnosis, treatment, and experience is unique.
Be careful not to equate your own experience or someone else’s with the person you’re talking to. That can make their experience feel diminished, even when that’s not what you intend.
Cancer can bring out a range of emotions: anger, sadness, uncertainty, fear, guilt, frustration, confusion, loneliness, isolation, resentment, grief, and more. The person you know well might be experiencing moods they’re never felt before—and they may feel many of these emotions more often than ever. Don’t take it personally when someone is angry, upset, or doesn’t want to talk. Respect a person’s feelings and their willingness to talk about their cancer.
4. Be normal when you talk to someone who has cancer
When a person you know has been diagnosed with cancer, they’re still the same person you know! Being sick and getting chemo doesn’t change a relationship or topics you’ve always talked about.
Yes, the person you’re talking to may be tired, or feeling ill, or not able to respond like they have before. But you can keep the same rituals you’ve always had. As long as their health permits, give a friendly hand squeeze, a handshake, fist bump, or hug. Make that person know that who they are to you hasn’t changed.
If you feel awkward when visiting, say so. Instead of pretending everything is okay, you can be less nervous and diffuse tension by being honest in ways like these:
- I’ve never been in this situation before. I’m not sure what to say.
- I don’t really know what to say or do. Can you tell me what you’d like to talk about?
- I’m nervous about visiting you, which seems silly. Is there something I should or shouldn’t do while I’m here?
It’s important to help the person with cancer feel normal, too. If you’re visiting with other people, make sure to include the patient in the conversation—don’t let them feel awkward because they can’t contribute. If your friend with cancer appears asleep or dazed during your visit, this may be a physical effect of medication. Assume they can hear you and would respond to you if they could.
5. Examples of what to say to someone who has cancer
People who have cancer will hear this a lot, so let’s start with the most frequently asked question: How are you? Chances are, the person you know will hear this from doctors, residents, aides, nurses, visitors, family and friends. And when it comes down to it, because they have cancer, the answer is probably “not good.”
Instead, there are things you can say to someone with cancer that show your concern and will encourage the kind of answers you’re more likely looking for. Here are a few examples of something nice to say to say to someone who has cancer.
Empathize with someone who has cancer
- This must be a tough time for you.
- I can’t imagine how you feel.
- I’m sorry you’re going through something like this.
- I don’t know what to say.
- I’m here for you if you want to talk.
- I know staying positive can be hard. How are you, really?
- It’s okay that you’re upset.
- I won’t take it personally if you don’t want to talk. Would you like me to stay?
- I care about you. I’m thinking about you.
Offer support during cancer treatments and recovery
- Do you want a lift to your appointment?
- I can drop some dinner over tonight
- Would you like to find a private place to talk?
- What isn’t getting done around the house? What feels overwhelming? Can I take care of that?
- I know you like to be independent. Would you like me to take care of this task until you ask me not to?
- What are you thinking of doing this week, and how can I help?
- I’d like to bring you a moment of joy. What would you like to do right now?
Talk about “regular life” instead of talking about cancer
- I saw a really good film the other day, you might like to watch it.
- I can talk about me if you like.
- It’s great to see you, I’ve been looking forward to catching up.
- Would you be up for a trip to the museum next week? (Making plans for the future gives people something positive to look forward to.)
- I saw in your social posts that… Tell me about it!
6. What NOT to say to someone with cancer
While it’s okay to admit you don’t know what to say, there are things you should prepare yourself NOT to say.
- Avoid making comparisons (“My aunt has cancer, and she’s up and around!”).
- Avoid doom-and-gloom stories (“There was someone at my office who died from this kind of cancer”).
- Don’t talk about or even suggest blame (“Were you ever a smoker?”).
- Don’t offer unsolicited advice (“Have you tried…”).
Other things said about cancer or a person’s situation may seem well-intentioned, but can come off wrong. Avoid statements like these when talking to someone who has cancer. They happen to be some of the phrases cancer patients’ say “bug us most.”
- “I know how you feel.” (Remember, everyone’s experience is very different.)
- “Be strong” or “Be positive” or “Don’t worry.” (It’s normal to have negative emotions. Don’t inadvertently pressure people to behave or feel a certain way.)
- “Here’s what you should do” or “This is what I’d do.” (Don’t offer advice they haven’t asked for.)
- “You look great!” (Try not to focus on physical appearance. Instead, try “It’s great to see you!”)
- “I’m sure you’ll be fine.” (You’re really not sure, and it may not be fine.)
- “How long do you have?” (How long does anyone have? And it’s simply inappropriate.)
7. Be consistent talking to someone with cancer
Having cancer can be a lonely business. Some friends stop communicating because they don’t know what to say. Treatments can feel isolating. Declining health can limit the number of people you can see.
Being there for someone who has cancer can mean a lot to that individual—especially when you’re there to offer support throughout the whole cancer journey. It’s common to get plenty of words of sympathy right after a diagnosis, but often people’s attention tapers off during cancer treatments and recovery.
A few ideas of how you can continually offer support:
- Make a phone call.
- Pay an in-person visit.
- Dash off a quick email to say hello.
- Send a postcard (snail mail is still a thing!).
- Mention that person in a social media post.
- Check in with a text.
Small kindnesses take many forms to someone who has cancer. Consistency can mean even more. Choose a regular time to check in. Tuesday phone calls during lunch or a funny email every Friday gives people something consistent to look forward to.
Caring for someone with cancer is difficult, and loving, and scary, and exhausting, and fulfilling—all rolled into one human experience. Do your best as you show care and comfort to the people you know and love.
We appreciate the opportunities we have to support people in their expressions of care and comfort.