Summing up: Talking to the person with cancer

  • Let them take the lead. If they want to talk, be a good listener. Listen to what’s said and how it’s said.
  • Try to be OK with silence. It may help your friend to focus their thoughts. Talking because you're nervous can be irritating. Sometimes silence is comforting and allows them to better express their thoughts and feelings.
  • Try to maintain eye contact. This gives your friend a sense that you are really present and listening carefully.
  • Touching, smiling, and warm looks can get past the barriers of the illness to the person you know and love.
  • Try not to give advice. Giving good advice is hard when you are not in the person’s shoes. It’s safer to ask questions or listen.
  • Do not say, “I know how you feel.” Your friend may get angry because you really don’t know how they feel.
  • If you’re feeling tearful, explain this to your friend. Be brief in your explanation. You may have to stay away until you can be there without your friend having to comfort you.
  • People with cancer don’t always want to think or talk about the disease. This makes them feel like their only identity is “cancer patient.” Laughing and talking about other things are often welcome distractions.
  • Try to do as many things together as possible. If you used to play cards – play cards now! If you used to go to the movies together – keep going to movies or watch movies together at home. Use your judgment about your friend’s energy level. Ask them if they need to take rest breaks. Try not to take the effects of the illness too lightly, but don’t be overprotective. Keep inviting and urging your friend to do things with you and others.
  • Encourage other friends and loved ones to visit. Maybe they would be willing to do errands, cook meals, or care for the children. If they can’t visit, ask them to write, email, or call.
  • Continue to visit. Put your friend on your weekly “to do” list. Cancer can be a very lonely and isolating experience. Your friend can’t always ask for help because it’s often hard to know exactly what will help! Stay in touch.
  • Most of all, be yourself. Try not to worry about whether you are doing things the right way. Let your words and your actions come from your heart. Your compassion and genuine caring are the most important things you can express right now.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: October 1, 2016

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