How to speak to someone with cancer

At first, this article was going to say one sentence, “Speak to them like you did before they had cancer.” But after some thought and research, we found that people with cancer should be spoken to differently. They are often going through one of the most difficult periods of their life. Although, a degree of normality should be expected, people undergoing a cancer diagnosis or cancer treatment do deserve a greater degree of empathy and more patience. People living with a cancer diagnosis, also have a legitimate excuse for not wanting to do things.

The following tips and discussion points are not meant to cause anguish, but help alleviate any anxiety you may feel when talking to someone who has cancer.

It’s ok to feel awkward

Ever been given a math problem but not taught how to solve it? You may try to solve it using logic or the tools and knowledge you have. Some people may work it out the way it was meant to be solved, others may guess it correct, and the rest will get it wrong.

Speaking to someone diagnosed with cancer is a similar experience. If you haven’t been taught the skills or been through a similar experience, you may feel awkward or scared to discuss things. And it’s ok and perfectly normal for some people. If you do find yourself in this situation, the best thing to say is just that: “I’m not sure what to say, but I’m sorry you have to go through it.” Admitting uncertainty reduces your risk of missing the mark and saying something inappropriate. It also opens the door for the other person to take the lead on discussing their cancer diagnosis.

Instead of saying:  “That’s not good to hear,” then changing the subject.

Try:  “I’m really sorry to hear that. Please forgive me if I ever accidentally say something inappropriate, but I am here if you need someone to talk to.”

Take your lead from them

There is no blueprint for people when and if they want to talk about their diagnosis or treatment. However, our report found that nearly all respondents wanted to discuss their diagnosis; but when it suited them. And sometimes our respondents wanted a break from speaking about their cancer.

It can be tricky to tell someone that you are free and interested in how they are without asking direct questions. But open-ended general questions such as “how are you?” or “what have you been up to lately,” will allow the person to choose to, or not to, discuss their cancer and treatment. If you find they don’t, do not get offended. Speaking to every person about their diagnosis, or treatment can become tiresome, and they probably appreciate taking a break from discussing it.

Instead of saying:  “How is your treatment going?”

Try:  “How have you been?”

Sometimes, less is more

Everyone’s cancer experience is unique. And although you may in the moment find it helpful to share anecdotes of others who have gone through similar situations, or exert your feelings onto the person, be careful not to burden the person. This is a time they need to focus their energy on getting through the next moment or day. And although it is important to keep the person involved and not sugar coat anything, too much focus on someone else’s story and not their own may not be beneficial.

Instead of saying:  “My friend went through the exact same thing and they are fine!”

Try:  “I know someone who’s gone through a similar diagnosis, would you like me to introduce you two?”

Instead of saying:  “Since your diagnosis, I have not slept at all.”

Try:  To speak to a third party, or a professional counsellor or psychologist, if you are finding it difficult to cope with someone else’s diagnosis; especially if you are their primary caregiver or next of kin. Remember, you’ll both manage better if you take some time out for yourself.


Catharsis is a fancy word you may have heard of that describes the purging of deep feelings, usually through talking or crying. It can bring about immense relief, and people undergoing cancer treatment can benefit from catharsis every now and again. However, they need someone to listen to them. And more importantly, sometimes they just need to purge how they are feeling; without being provided advice and without being judged.

Instead of saying “be positive” try asking “how are you?” When someone expresses to you that they’re feeling down, or exhausted, or have negative thoughts, usually they are just wanting some reassurance. A simple “I’m sorry to hear you’re feeling that way. What can I do to help?” should provide reassurance and help uplift their mood (as long as you follow through what you can do to help.).

Instead of saying:  “I know the feeling.”

Try:  “That must be tough.”

Do things for them, not for you

Wanting to visit someone who has just had surgery, or is in the middle of chemotherapy, may seem like a good idea. You may think, it’ll cheer them up, or it's good to be social. But cancer and its treatments come with an array of side effects. Up to 80% of all people with cancer will experience fatigue at some stage, for example. People may not want to socialise at certain points of treatment or would prefer to maintain a routine or structure.

Ask before doing, and you will find your support and gesture will go further.

Instead of saying:  “I’m going to come over later to cheer you up!”

Try:  “What do you feel like doing? I’m happy to do anything”

Instead of saying:  “I’m going to cook you some frozen meals and bring them over.”

Try:  “I am a bit short of time but would really like to cook something for you. Can I make you some frozen meals? And if so, what do you feel like?”



Read this next: 

  • Let’s Talk About Cancer [Infographic] - We asked 500+ people about comments they’d received from friends and loved ones about their cancer diagnosis. Talking about cancer isn’t always easy, but the results shocked us.

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