What to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer



Tips for Navigating Conversations After a Cancer Diagnosis

"I have cancer." Hearing those words from someone close to you feels devastating. You may not know what to say or how to react. You know your friend is going through a range of emotions and has many decisions ahead of her. You want to comfort her, yet you're also feeling sad and confused. Figuring out what to say to someone with cancer isn't always easy, but talking is an easy way to make your friend feel loved and supported at this difficult time.

Admit You Don't Know What to Say

It's natural to be at a loss for words when you first hear the diagnosis. You may be unsure how your friend feels. You may not know what he needs to hear. Don't be afraid to admit that. It's better to say, "I'm so sorry. I really don't know what to say," than to say nothing. You can also use this time to ask if there are topics that are off-limits. Your friend may not want to talk about treatment options or the possibility of dying, for example. Respect those boundaries any time you chat with your friend.

Tell Your Friend You're Doing Something Specific

Instead of the general "Let me know what you need" offer that many people give, let your friend know what you're going to do to help. You might say, "I'm going to organize a meal drop-off for your family," or "I'm going to come clean your house every Saturday." Be very specific with your offers based on your relationship with the patient. If you're very close, you might feel comfortable doing her laundry or buying her groceries. If you're not as close, you might hire a cleaning service for her or give her gift cards to local restaurants.

Give Your Friend Positive Affirmations

A cancer diagnosis can knock your friend down and make him feel hopeless or defeated. Remind him that he is strong, resilient and loved. Those positive comments of support can help him believe in himself and help him remain strong as he goes through cancer treatments. Just be careful not to say things that might make him feel worse. Phrases like "Don't worry" or "You'll be fine" can have a negative effect. It's impossible not to worry, and he is probably acutely aware that he may not be fine.

Ask How She's Doing

Ignoring the cancer news can make your friend feel lonely. She may not want to talk about it, but she may just need someone to listen. Ask her how she's doing, and let her respond. She may say she's fine. Let her know she can share her feelings with you even if they aren't happy and positive. Just don't force her to talk if she'd rather keep things to herself. If she talks about her treatment, avoid the temptation to give her advice. She's likely already done a lot of research, and she may be sick of hearing everyone's opinions on how she should proceed.

Talk About Something Other Than Cancer

Your friend's day probably involves a lot of talk about cancer. He may want a break from the medical talk. If you get the sense that he's up for a change in the subject, talk about things going on in your life or in your circle of friends. It can make him feel less isolated and more connected to the real world. It also shows him that you're still friends despite his cancer diagnosis.

Helping Kids Understand Cancer

A cancer diagnosis is tough enough for adults to understand. Kids may struggle even more with understanding what's happening and what to say to someone they know who has cancer. Being open and age-appropriate helps your child figure out the situation.

Start by considering what your child already knows. Has someone she knows already had cancer? Has she heard about cancer from a friend whose relative has the disease? Reference that knowledge, and clarify any misunderstandings your child has about cancer. Don't sugar-coat the situation, but don't be completely negative, either. You might explain what the person may go through during treatment, but that the treatment may make the loved one healthy again.

Encourage your child to talk about the cancer diagnosis. Let her ask questions, and answer them in a way she can understand and that comforts her. Address her concerns if she's worried about the person dying or if she's worried she might get cancer, too.

Let your child process the situation in her own way. It's tempting to force her to visit the person or say something to him, but she may have a hard time initially. When she's ready to see the person, give her some suggestions on what she can say. You might help her make a card instead of expecting her to talk to him right away. Bringing along a game, movie or meal is another way to make the situation easier for your child.