What to Say (And Not Say) to Someone Who Has Cancer

As a two-time terminal cancer survivor, I’ve been lucky. “What’s so lucky about being diagnosed with cancer?” you might ask. It’s a reasonable question. But cancer has been one of my greatest teachers — first showing me how much I want to live and then (now 25 years into remission) giving me the chance to do it.

Cancer has also shown me what an amazing support system I have in my life — starting with my parents when I was first diagnosed to my wife, who now offers her support as I travel around the world to help other cancer patients and survivors on their own paths toward healing.

It has been my life’s mission to be there for others going through the same struggle I once did. My own experience has helped me to find the right words to bring comfort when I can — and a shoulder to cry on when there are no words left to say.

If someone in your life has recently been diagnosed with cancer, you may wonder what to say to them. Close family members, such as a parent, partner or child, may need your help in more ways than one. If the cancer patient is your friend or coworker, you may be hesitant to reach out — out of the fear that you’re bothering them or that you’ll say the wrong thing.

This guide can help you decide what to say to someone who has cancer, in order to bring comfort or camaraderie.

What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer:

  1. “Everything is going to be just fine.” When people first find out they have cancer, they go through a range of emotions, which might include feeling overwhelmed, in denial, angry or afraid. Telling them that everything is going to be fine minimizes their feelings and signals that you may not realize the magnitude of the situation.
  2. “I read this article about someone who cured their own cancer.” Cancer patients have an entire team of people working alongside them to find the right treatment plan, including a medical oncologist. Sending a cancer patient articles (especially from non-credible sources) about off-the-wall strategies could be harmful, providing false information or a false sense of hope. Every cancer and cancer patient is different and what may have “worked” for one person may not work for another — if it even did in the first place.
  3. “Let me know what I can do to help.” Asking the cancer patient what you can do to help puts the onus on him or her to think of something — on top of everything else they already have to do. More than likely, they won’t follow up with a request, even if they really need the help.
  4. “I had a relative who died from cancer.” Understandably, when we hear sad news, we want to show empathy. However, your relative’s prognosis is not this person’s prognosis. And telling your loved one about how someone else lost the battle against cancer only reminds him or her of the worst-case scenario.
  5. “I love your wig!” If your loved one didn’t have cancer, would you make a comment on their worst hair day? Hopefully not. Although people say this with good intensions, it only brings the cancer patient’s attention back to the fact that they have no hair. That can make them feel uncomfortable and insecure — the exact opposite of what you wanted to do.

What to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer:

  1. “We’re in this together. Would you like for me to go with you to your next appointment?” There’s nothing that makes someone feel more lonely or isolated than receiving a cancer diagnosis. There’s an almost instant feeling of overwhelm, which makes it difficult to know what to do first. Ask if you can go with your close family member or friend to an important appointment to support them — and help them take notes. They might be distracted by their emotions and having someone there can ensure they don’t miss anything.
  2. “How are you feeling today?” The cancer patient might be having the worst day of their life. This question opens the door to allow them to talk about their pain or worry, which might help them cope. Don’t use their response as a segue to unsolicited advice or statements, such as “it will pass” or “it will get better.” To show empathy, you can simply say, “That really sucks. It sounds like today has been really tough.”
  3. “Would it be OK if I did [specific action] to help?” Offer a specific example of one way you could help. You might team up with family members or close friends to start a meal train, so they have homemade dinners ready that they didn’t have to cook. Or you could offer to mow their lawn (or hire a service) for the next few months. Asking if you can help with something specific makes it easier to accept the offer — and it shows them you really mean it.
  4. “Are you up for a visit today?” People struggling with a health issue want to feel like they have support when they need it. However, there will inevitably also be times when they need their space. They may have hugged a toilet all morning after treatment — and the last thing they want is to feel like they have to put on a happy face (or a presentable pair of pants). Ask if they’re up for a visit, but don’t take it personally if they say “no.” Just tell them you understand and you’ll reach out another day to try again. Additionally, if you make plans weeks or days in advance to see them, follow up the day-of to make sure it’s still OK to come by. They might have been feeling great the day they made the plans — and not so hot when the day arrives.
  5. Just listen. We might avoid a family member or friend because we’re not sure what to say to someone who has cancer. Sometimes, our presence is enough. If you’re at a loss for words, visit them anyway. A hug, a hand squeeze, or simply sitting next to them can be more uplifting than anything you might say.