8 mins. read

What to say to someone impacted by cancer

Key Takeaways

  • Everyone is different: Therefore, what to say to someone with cancer will depend on their personality, your relationship with them, and the type of treatment they’ve had. 
  • You can talk about ‘everyday’ life: Not all conversations need to be about their diagnosis. It’s ok to talk about normal things such as family, world events, and what you’ve watched on TV.
  • Listening is just as important as talking: You don’t always have to have a response to what they say but listening to someone with cancer talk about their life and how they feel about their diagnosis can mean a lot.

When you find out that someone you know has cancer, it can be distressing. It’s normal to feel this way, as is not knowing how to approach the person impacted and the subject of their diagnosis. There’s no rulebook when it comes to supporting someone with cancer, but if you aren’t sure what to say, this guide provides some helpful advice.

Respect their privacy

People will react differently to receiving a cancer diagnosis. They will likely be processing many emotions and whilst some will be happy to discuss how they feel, others may not be as open, and this is ok.

The best thing you can do is ask your loved one, friend or colleague if they want to talk and respect the answer they give. Try not to pry and let them take the lead in conversations about their diagnosis. If they say that they don’t want to talk, you can let them know you are there for them if they change their mind.

What do you say to someone with cancer?

We know that it can be difficult to know how to respond when you find out someone you care about has cancer. What you say might depend on their stage of cancer and your relationship, amongst other things. If you want to talk to them and offer them support, it’s a good idea to approach them with honesty and sensitivity.

What to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer

If someone has been newly diagnosed with cancer, they may be scared, angry or sad, among other emotions, and may still be processing these fresh feelings. They may not even know what the next steps are concerning treatment.

Let your knowledge of the person shape your response. If it’s a close family member, you might want to simply tell them you love them and you’re there to support them or ask them how they feel. If it’s an employee with cancer, you might instead ask them what you can do to help them in the workplace as they navigate their diagnosis.

What to say to someone going through chemo treatments

Undergoing chemo can be both physically and mentally tough. Many people experience side effects such as severe fatigue, sickness, and hair loss. During this time, some people will appreciate you checking in simply to ask how they are feeling.

Depending on your relationship, you could ask them if they want you to drive or go with them to appointments so that they have some company. You can also ask them if they need anything, or if there’s something that will help them as they go through the treatment process. This might be anything from buying them magazines to read at the hospital to cooking them some meals they can heat up easily after a chemo treatment session.

Your loved one, friend or colleague may be feeling self-conscious due to changes to their appearance so keep this in mind when thinking of what to say. They might appreciate a compliment about their outfit, or maybe you could invite them to go for a spa treatment with you to help them feel good about themselves.

What to say to someone with terminal cancer

When someone receives a terminal diagnosis, it can be heartbreaking for both them and you. Their physical and mental state can be unpredictable as they process their diagnosis and deal with the effects of cancer on their body.

It can be difficult to know what to say but it’s important to let the person you care about lead the conversation and talk about as much or as little as they feel comfortable with. You can start by asking open-ended questions such as ‘how are you feeling today?’ so that they can decide how much to share.

Avoiding discussions about death can lead to tension, create feelings of loneliness, increase fear, and prevent practical things from being addressed such as funeral arrangements. However, when approaching such topics, consider your relationship to the person, their culture and religion, and their personality.

What to say to someone whose cancer has come back

If someone finds out their cancer has come back, it’s normal for them to experience sadness, frustration, and fear. They may not react the same way that they did when they received their diagnosis the first time round, so be prepared for this and take a flexible approach to communication.  

If they expected it to return, they may feel strong and ready to face treatment, in which case, mirroring their feelings may be appreciated. If they feel like they are too emotionally and physically weak to go through it again, then giving them space to talk through their feelings may help them feel more prepared.

Getting over your discomfort

It’s normal to have mixed emotions when you find out someone has cancer. You might feel sad or angry, feel sorry for them or even feel guilty. It can feel awkward or uncomfortable to talk to them, especially if you haven’t experienced supporting someone with cancer before but being upfront can make things easier.

It’s ok to tell them that you aren’t sure what to say, and they will likely appreciate your honesty. If you want to support them, then let them know this. You can simply tell them you are there to help if they need it or offer something specific such as childcare, errands, or emotional support.

Listening is key

Whilst you might be worried about what to say or saying the right thing, it’s important to recognise that sometimes saying nothing at all is the best thing to do. Allowing the person you care about to speak about their diagnosis freely, without responding or trying to give the correct answers, can give them the chance to let their feelings and worries out without any expectations or judgement.

Don’t be afraid to talk about everyday life

When someone gets diagnosed with cancer, it can be easy for this aspect of their life to become the main focus of conversation but it’s important to remember that they are more than just a cancer patient. Many people will appreciate talking about other things for a sense of normalcy and to prevent their diagnosis from becoming all-encompassing.

It’s ok to have conversations with the person about everyday things, just as you did before their diagnosis. This could include chatting about family members, the news, celebrity gossip, what’s going on at work or daily household tasks. If your relationship with them has always included humour, then make sure it’s still part of it following their diagnosis; just ensure it’s at appropriate times.

Kind words to say someone with cancer

When talking to someone with cancer, the most important thing is that your words are sincere and that if you offer help, you follow through with it. If you want to show you care and that you are thinking of them, you can say things like:

  • “I’m sorry you are going through this.”
  • “I don’t know what to say but I want you to know I’m here for you.”
  • “I’m here if you’d ever like to talk.”
  • “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
  • “How are you feeling?”
  • “Is there anything you need?”

Tips for what not to say to someone who has cancer

We know that you would never want to hurt someone’s feelings with your words. However, when someone has cancer, some comments that come from an innocent place have the potential to come across as insensitive or cause upset.

  • Avoid making comments about their appearance such as ‘you’ve lost weight’ or ‘you’re looking pale’. They will already be aware of such things and commenting on them may embarrass them or affect their self-esteem.
  • Refrain from sharing stories about other people you know who have had cancer. Everyone’s experience will be different, and you run the risk of invalidating their feelings and/or adding worry, especially if the outcome of the story you are sharing isn’t positive.
  • Overly positive notions can be unhelpful. Comments such as ‘you’re so strong’, ‘everything is going to be fine’ or ‘keep your hopes up’, may come from a well-meaning place but can undermine their feelings. Phrases such as these may also make them feel like they must maintain a positive mindset or act a certain way. 

If you are supporting someone with cancer, we are here to help. We offer a range of support types that cover the psychological, physical, and practical effects of cancer, all of which are delivered by Perci Health’s friendly and professional cancer specialists.