What to Say to Someone With Cancer

Written By:Stacy Simon

As medical knowledge advances, more and more people are surviving cancer. With more than 15 million survivors and counting, chances are you know someone who’s been told they have some type of cancer.

Studies have found that cancer survivors with strong emotional support tend to better adjust to the changes cancer brings to their lives, have a more positive outlook, and often report a better quality of life. Often, however, family, friends, and co-workers of cancer patients want to help, but just don’t know what to do. If someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer or another serious illness, you may be wondering how to help or what to say.

Here are some ideas about where to start:

Keep in touch.

  • Write, text, email, or call often, and keep it short.
  • Call at times that work best for your friend.
  • When your friend calls or texts you, answer right away.


  • Call before you visit, and be understanding if your friend can’t see you at that time.
  • Keep the visit short, and be understanding if the family decides it’s time to end the visit. Bring a movie to watch together, a snack to share, a book to read while your friend naps, or a newspaper to help your friend catch up on current events.
  • Don’t be afraid to touch, hug, or shake hands with your friend.

Know what to say (and not to say).

  • Gear the conversation to subjects that you know your friend likes to talk about.
  • Be sensitive to your friend’s attention span, and understand that they may be too tired to participate actively.
  • Help your friend participate in the conversation by asking questions: Ask for their advice, their opinions, and how they’re feeling.
  • Give honest compliments, such as “You look rested today.”
  • Allow your friend to be negative, silent, or withdrawn, if that is how they’re feeling.
  • Don’t urge your friend to be strong or fight the cancer if they don’t feel up to it.
  • Don’t leave out your friend when talking to others in the room, or assume they can’t hear you even if they appear to be asleep.
  • Don’t offer medical advice or your opinion on things like diet, vitamins, and herbal therapies.

Offer to run errands.

  • Organize family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers to help complete regularly scheduled tasks.
  • Helpful tasks may include making meals, cleaning the house, caring for the lawn and garden, baby-sitting, pet sitting, grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions, and driving family and friends to and from the airport.
  • Do urgent errands right away.

Remember caregivers.

Your friend isn’t the only one who may need help coping with cancer; the person (or people) taking care of them could also use your support. Caregivers often neglect their own needs because they are so busy taking care of their loved one. Helping your friend’s caregiver is another way to show you care.

  • Offer to stay with your friend while the caregiver takes a break. It’s important for caregivers to get some time to themselves.
  • Help out the caregiver with errands, too. Ask which tasks would be most helpful – and follow through.

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