What To Say To Someone With Cancer

At first, this article was just 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. While 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 okay 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. That’s okay (and perfectly normal for a lot of 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.

what to say to someone with cancer

What to say to a cancer patient

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.

Listen

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?”

 

words of encouragement for cancer patients

What not to say to a cancer patient

We asked 500+ members of our community about comments they’d received from friends and loved ones about their cancer diagnosis. And even though we know discussing cancer isn’t always easy, the results of the survey shocked us.

In this episode of Cancer Companion, we recap the worst comments from our survey – and figure out what not to say to cancer patients. You really won’t believe what some people have been told!

Then we talk about how to avoid these statements – and give a few handy tips to help you navigate these conversations in future.

Last but not least, we revisit our interview with breast cancer patient Amanda Luke. Amanda talks about the importance of friends, family, and support throughout the cancer journey.

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Welcome to Cancer Companion, the podcast from Live Better With!
This week, we’re discussing what NOT to say to cancer patients.

 

Let’s Talk About Cancer: Infographic

See some of the most shocking comments here:

Talking About Cancer - Infographic

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16 Replies to “What To Say To Someone With Cancer”

  1. I was diagnosed with Myeloma 9 years ago, gone through chemotherapy 4 times and I’ve never heard anyone use comments like you show in your article .

    1. I’ve said that to people, hoping to lift their spirits. maybe I made a mistake then. I like it when people say I look well . Last time I saw my oncologist, he said “look at you! you look fantastic” and it made me feel great, and hopeful too.

  2. People often mean Well, or say some of these things because they can’t cope and want to move paat/not talk about it. I had a relative say her friends friend had breast cancer but ‘proper breast cancer, you know not like yours…’ because mine was caused by radiation for my previous cancer and I ‘only’ had bilateral mastectomies and LD reconstruction. My previous cancer was ‘…if you have to have cancer it’s the best one…’ Hodgkins Lymphoma. And according to all, medics included you don’t look like you have cancer, heart disease, arthritis, tachycardia…etc. It’s a double edge sword looking well…or mostly looking well.

  3. Try getting vulva cancer and then see who is even prepared to talk to you about it. If you don’t have skin, breast or some other more ‘normal’ cancer then you are indeed left out in the cold. Why people have to act like this is beyond me, it’s about time people got a grip on this disease and stopped treating sufferers like pariahs. It really COULD happen to you too! Be kind to others

  4. I must have been lucky as I did not have any of the comments made to me. I was supported by everyone around me, except 2 sets of ‘so called’ friends, so they are not friends anymore.

  5. I so wanted to talk about my cancer, and treatment, rudeness of doctors etc, because I had noone at home to talk to, but everyone used to walk away if I started, or say things like “oh you are not on about it again, are you!” not one person said “I’m here for you”. would have loved a support group, but exceptionally rare cancers don’t have any! solution – I used to talk to myself at home, plus meditation.

  6. Yes, I am positive but please stop telling me to be positive.
    Yes, I know my hair will grow back but please appreciate the journey I have to go through first.
    Yes, I have lost weight but I did not choose to loose it this way.
    Yes, I know statistics show 1 in 3-4 people will or have cancer but please don’t remind me. I am not a statistic.
    Yes, you do know someone with the same diagnosis, but I am not that person or in any way similar. I am an individual.
    No, you do not understand or appreciate what I am going through so please remember that.
    No, I do not have a bucket list, do you?
    And yes, I CAN-CER-VIVE.

  7. Please don’t tell me I look ” well, fabulous, really good etc” I know you mean well, but it really is soul destroying.
    Don’t tell me about your friend, colleague, auntie or friend of a friend, who had breast cancer ( the same as you ) and is now back at work and back to normal.
    Please don’t tell me to stay POSITIVE and don’t GIVE UP.

  8. The ‘worst things’ to say to cancer patients may well be the things we all say when we don’t know what else to say. Nobody sets out to upset others so it’s worth being understanding. I have terminal cancer and sometimes get very unpalatable comments. ‘None of us knows when we’re going to die. I could get knocked over tomorrow. You could outlive me.’ I know the standard responses to this but prefer to shrug it off. I don’t want to enter into combat with friends. I know this isn’t everyone’s way. And in some ways I prefer people to make their awkward but well-meaning comments than cross the street to avoid me. That’s happened to me too! My message to them is: ‘say those silly things if you must but don’t hide from me. Give me a hug!’

    1. I also have terminal cancer and I am always told how well I look. I know it’s meant well but sometimes I feel guilty for always making the effort, I am not sure how I am supposed to look. It would be great not to mention my health because I will if I want to.

    2. Yes, I get told this as well and although I don’t really mind being told how good I look, I worry about how I’m supposed to maintain the glamour when I get even sicker. Do I want to be the best looking corpse in Sussex?

      I must say that being told to ‘stay positive’ is so annoying! I always smile sweetly but what I’d really like to say is ‘Shut the fuck up! You try facing this sort of death and see how positive you are!’

  9. Have to disagree about the ‘It’s only hair, it’ll grow back!” comment. I was freaking out about losing my hair and my hairdresser, who had himself been through cancer 5 years ago, said this to me. It actually helped me to accept the inevitable, not go for cold capping (more discomfort), and focus on the positive future. You don’t expect your hairdresser to say that – I expected him to offer all sorts of tips for hanging on to it at all costs, but he was pragmatic and helpful. When my hair started to fall out he shaved it really short for me at the end of the day when I was the only person in the salon and also trimmed my wig to a style that suited me. He didn’t even charge me for this. He is a star!

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