How to Talk About Cancer


People often find themselves wondering what to say to someone who has cancer. Understandably, no one wants to upset a friend or family member with cancer or say the wrong thing. This doubt can result in people avoiding the person with cancer when he or she needs support and comfort the most.

Here, we’ll explain how to talk about cancer. You’ll learn what to say to a friend or family member who has cancer, the importance of listening, and what not to say.

What to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer

The initial conversation with someone who has cancer can be intimidating. You need to acknowledge the issue without adding to the person’s distress. Possible supportive statements include:

  • I’m sorry this is happening to you.
  • I’m always here if you need to talk.
  • I care about you.
  • How can I help (with specific task or other need)?
  • I’m thinking about you.

Rather than introducing the topic of cancer yourself, ask the person if he/she wants to talk about it. If he/she does, be an active listener. Give him/her your full attention, focusing on what the person is saying, not what you will say next. Let him/her drive the direction of the conversation.

Naturally, you’ll have questions about how your friend or family member is feeling, their treatment, and the specifics of the cancer. Remember, many people will have been asking the person the same questions, which can leave the person with cancer feeling stressed and drained. Always watch for cues from the person you’re talking with.

What Not to Say to Someone with Cancer

How to talk about cancer means knowing there are some expressions and attitudes that are both unhelpful and distressing to the person with cancer. Don’t be dismissive of his/her condition or fears, and while it’s okay to express your own emotions, don’t make the conversation about you.

Examples of unhelpful statements include:

  • I know just how you feel.
  • I knew someone with the same cancer.
  • You’ll be fine.
  • How long have you got?
  • Don’t worry.

Be careful not to offer unwanted advice. The patient has already worked with his/her cancer team to create a treatment plan and unsolicited advice can be stressful. Always ask before making suggestions about the person’s approach to cancer and respect his/her decision if they don’t want to hear you out.

If the person with cancer is feeling low or depressed, offer him/her your support and encouragement. It’s tempting to try and change the subject when uncomfortable feelings are expressed, but a big part of how to talk about cancer centers on allowing your friend or family member the chance to express such emotions.

Talking about Other Topics

If the person wants to talk about his or her cancer, listen. However, remember that having cancer doesn’t mean all other interests evaporate. The person you’re talking to might want to talk about hobbies, children, or any of their normal interests. Support and encourage the patient when he/she wants to talk about lighter subjects. A sense of normalcy helps people cope with cancer.

Finally, be there for your friend or family member. Even a companionable silence is better than staying away because you don’t know what to say to someone who has cancer. Tell him/her you are there for them. Your friend or family member can cancel visits if he/she’s not up to socializing but be sure he/she knows you’ll always honor a commitment for a visit or phone call. Too often cancer patients feel isolated. Knowing how to talk about cancer helps prevent someone you love from feeling alone during one of the most challenging periods of his/her life.


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