What to Say to Someone with Cancer

Find the right words for what to say to someone with cancer by following this author's advice.

Almost everyone I know has been affected in some way by cancer.

My grandfather had a brief but tough battle with stomach cancer. My aunt died of colon cancer. A dear friend of mine fought a rare non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma twice and bravely lost her life to it. The mother of one of my best friends survived a fight with aggressive breast cancer. That’s just to name a few examples — cancer is affecting the networks of relationships of neighbors, friends, and coworkers I know as well.

Despite knowing so many people who have been intimately affected by cancer, I have often found myself not knowing what to say or how to help friends or family members in this situation. Sometimes I’m afraid that what I might say is actually the wrong thing.

So I reached out to my friend, Kelli, to help me with this. Three years ago, her mom underwent surgery for her breast cancer after several rounds of chemotherapy treatments.

“Being on the outside is hard,” Kelli said. If you’ve never seen someone close to you suffer from something like cancer, she explained, it can be difficult to know what to do or say when you are asked to walk with a friend, coworker, or classmate who is facing an experience like this.

She emphasized that each person is different and handles challenges uniquely. For some people, not talking about the cancer is a clear preference. Others may actually need a space to be able to voice feelings of fear or worry.

It’s important that you reflect on your relationship with the person affected and consider things from his or her point of view. Try to take cues from your friend about what is needed at the moment. If you know the person has recently had chemotherapy and will likely be very tired, it’s probably wise to keep conversations shorter, for example.

No matter what, be vulnerable and don’t be afraid to simply offer, “I don’t know what to say.” Your vulnerability gives your friend permission to be open with you about how he or she is feeling.

A lot of people try to be positive and say things like, “It’ll be fine,” or, “She’s in the best hands.” Others might say things like, “Don’t worry!” or, “She will be okay.” While these sentiments are coming from a supportive place, they are not particularly helpful. The fact is, only the doctors can really say if things will be fine and if the person will be okay.

Though people mean well, ideas like this can unknowingly minimize the situation. Rather than take this generalized approach, Kelli said, acknowledge the unknown and the fear that comes along with cancer. It takes courage to stand in the pain and uncertainty with someone — but that’s what friends are for!

I asked Kelli about whether it is a bad idea to initiate conversation and bring up the topic of cancer proactively. She explained that for those who are sick or supporting a loved one, cancer is never far from their minds. Mentioning it likely won’t be traumatizing, she said, and can actually show that other people are thinking about it, too, and care enough to ask.

For some people, however, it can be exhausting to talk about it all the time. Depending on how frequent your communication is and what type of relationship you have, she clarifies, first asking for permission to bring it up can show consideration.

Kelli encouraged me to view conversations as opportunities to honor what the person is experiencing. “Know the person and gauge if they’re someone who keeps things private or if they need to talk about it,” she advised.

For someone dealing with cancer, the whole world stops, and it can be very isolating when people’s lives seem to go on without you, she explained.

Instead of saying, “It’ll be okay,” give the person the space to be vulnerable. Provide a space that lets your friend express her worries and fears. Acknowledge the uncertainty and the scariness of the situation. Cancer can be fast-acting, and although doctors are making advances all the time, things can happen unexpectedly. And there’s still no cure.

A lot of times, those who are caretakers for a parent who has cancer, like Kelli, try so hard to be strong for the person suffering. They spend much of their own energy staying positive and brave for the parent that they really need a friend who can give them much-needed space to be afraid. Honor the fear and discomfort your friend is experiencing as someone suffering from cancer or as a caretaker.

Kelli also pointed out that asking how you can help may come off as a bit vague. She said that she never wanted to burden someone, so when people asked how they could help, she would say she didn’t need anything. Many friends of hers simply came to help by getting groceries or making meals, though, which actually was comforting. Specific offers to help were appreciated because it even took away the burden of asking. Something as small as saying, “I’m going to come over and do your laundry;” or, “I would love to listen to what you’re going through” can provide some relief for the families of those with someone experiencing cancer.

If you’re not that close and don’t have the type of relationship where it would be natural to go over to the person’s house, Kelli recommended sending a card or a text to let the person know you are thinking about him or her. Offering prayers, small gestures, or other intentional acts can be ways of letting the person know that you see what they are going through and care. Simply be there for the person facing the unknown in the ways that you can.

Again, unless you are a doctor, you can’t solve the problem. Instead, focus on what you can control. You can make a dinner, bring magazines for hospital treatment days, buy extra toilet paper, or offer other services that you know will be needed. Be in solidarity with your friend’s suffering as much as you can. Acknowledge the pain, the fear, the discomfort — all of it. Be with them. If that’s all you do, it’ll be enough.

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