Here's What You Should (and Shouldn't) Say to Someone With Cancer

Cancer is something that touches thousands of lives, yet most people are at a loss for what to say to a cancer patient. Those with cancer can sometimes feel uncomfortable because of others’ words, even when it’s unintentional. Chances are, those speaking the words are just as confused by what to say.

This was on my mind as I browsed Instagram one day. While scrolling through cancer awareness accounts, I happened upon a post from Lisa from Girls on Chemo. Her post is below, but the essence of it is that she had been dealing with what not to say to people who have cancer, but she wasn’t always giving people what they could say instead.

If you lock me in a room for 20 minutes and make me wait, I’m going to play with all of your stuff. Just sayin… ???? On a completely unrelated note, a friend recently said to me that, since I often comment on what NOT to say to cancer patients, I make him nervous to say ANYTHING at all (out of fear of saying the wrong thing). It made me feel bad because that certainly is not my intention. My hope in sharing these things I’ve learned along the way and comments that other patients & survivors have shared with me is to educate those who have not experienced cancer and let other people who are struggling know that they are not alone. I too was once a person living without cancer. We all were! I was completely clueless as to what to say or not say and how I could help. I WISH someone would have given me more information so that I could have better comforted the people I knew with cancer. My hope is to be helpful in any small way. It’s honestly the least that I can do. I will never personally cure cancer, but I feel as though I am doing and accomplishing nothing by being silent on the matter. To all the patients and survivors out there: I hope you will never fear speaking what is on your heart. If we are unwilling to learn from one another and set aside sensitivities, ignorances, or jealousy, we will never move forward or grow. You are never too smart or too old to grow. #lifeaftercancer #cancersurvivor #hodgkinslymphoma #girlsonchemo #cancer #chemo #cancersucks #chemosucks #lymphoma #cancerawareness #cancersupport #lymphomaawareness #bleomycinlungtoxicity #remission #cancerresearch #fuckcancer #fightlikeagirl #chemotherapy #bloodcancer #lymphomies #lymphomaclub

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I asked her if she would like to collaborate on a piece that would be useful to those struggling to find the right words to say to someone with cancer, and this is what we came up with as a rudimentary guide. As I’ve said in multiple posts, everyone approaches cancer differently. This is just our take on what we would have liked to hear and things that didn’t sit well with us as we were undergoing treatment.

Instead of saying nothing.

It’s OK if you don’t really know what to say, but not acknowledging someone’s diagnosis does not provide them with any comfort. It also makes you appear as though you either don’t care or don’t know about the diagnosis, which is definitely not the message you want to send

Say: ”I’m sorry.” 

Even though it’s often overused (like when you bump into someone in the grocery store), it’s OK to say you are sorry to hear someone has cancer. Even if you say nothing other than this, the patient knows that you are thinking of them.

Cancer patients might not want to talk about their diagnosis, and that’s OK, but if you express your sympathy, at least they know you have their back and will be there if and when they’re ready to talk.

Instead of saying: ”What caused your cancer?” 

Most people (including doctors) don’t know what causes cancer. Asking someone who has been diagnosed with cancer what caused it or why they got it might make them feel as though they did something wrong or something to deserve such an awful disease.

Even if someone was a smoker for 40 years and then got lung cancer, you should never blame someone for their illness. The “why” should only be something discussed between the patient and their doctor.

Say: “Are there any symptoms I should look out for in my own body?”

Justin is happy to share the symptoms of testicular cancer and will often go into an in-depth explanation if he sees an opportunity. We want to spread awareness. Many cancers cannot be prevented, as in our cases, but early detection can help get someone on the path to being cured.

Phrasing your curiosity about their diagnosis as a way to be proactive about your own health can lighten the weight of asking someone to delve into their medical history.

Instead of saying: “Someone I know passed away from cancer.” 

We understand you want to connect by sharing your personal story of how cancer has impacted you or someone you love at some point, but sharing a story where a cancer patient’s outcome was not a positive one is not helpful or uplifting, and can be a very damaging reminder to a patient who is already constantly contemplating their own mortality.

While this seems like an obvious thing to avoid saying, Justin actually had a timeshare agent use this as a “selling point” on his honeymoon!

Say: “I know someone who had cancer. Would you like to hear about some things that they found helpful?” 

Nearly everyone has a cancer story, whether it’s their own or a close loved one. There is power in sharing information, and cancer patients can sometimes benefit from another perspective. By phrasing it as a question instead of imposing unsolicited advice, you give the cancer patient an opportunity to say no.

If they say no, it’s not because they don’t value your opinion — we cancer patients are inundated with advice from everyone, from medical professionals to random people. It’s sometimes overwhelming, and we need to focus on what is working best for us.

Instead of saying: ”Let me know if there’s anything you need.” 

Phrasing your offer to help this way puts the pressure and responsibility on the patient to reach out to you. This is stressful, especially when patients have so many things to do already. Many people are not comfortable asking for help, so if you leave it up to them, you may never hear from them or have an opportunity to help them for that matter.

Taking action means more.

Say: “I am going to do XYZ for you.” 

Instead of asking cancer patients to contact you if they need help, tell them what you are going to do for them. For example, you might say that you are cooking them a meal and ask which day this week would be best to bring it over or bring them a frozen meal they can use at their discretion.

Call them and ask if you can pick up their child to take them out to do something fun. Drop off a basket of snacks and magazines. Organize a meal train (on websites such as or and get the community involved.

Don’t just say you can help — actually help.

Instead of saying: “You are brave.” 

This seems like a kind thing to say, but many patients don’t know how to handle this compliment because they don’t feel brave. Lisa described this statement to her family and friends like this: If you were on a falling bridge and the only way to survive was to jump to the side, you would do it. Would you say that was a brave move? Or would you say that you did what you had to do to survive?

Cancer patients have been forced into a situation they don’t want to be in and must take immediate action. Anything that isn’t really an option doesn’t really seem brave.

Say: “I can’t imagine how you feel.” 

Simply put, until you have cancer, you do not know what it’s like to have cancer. Justin’s grandfather had cancer, but he didn’t know what it was like until he went through it myself. You can sympathize, but empathizing is difficult without going through the experience yourself. Recognize that, and cancer patients will respect that. Then, they may tell you how they feel.

Listen when they do.

Instead of saying: “Stay positive. I hear having a positive attitude helps.”

This can imply that the patient is not allowed to break down or have bad days. People need to work through a range of emotions when diagnosed with a major illness. It’s OK to be negative or to question. Furthermore, having a positive attitude will not cure cancer on its own. It certainly lightens the seriousness of the diagnosis, but it doesn’t actually help cure cancer.

Also, it’s rare to find a cancer patient who doesn’t have a “positive attitude” as best that they could. By insinuating otherwise, you’re being callous.

Say: “I know always being positive can be hard. How are you really doing?” 

As we said, cancer comes with some negative thoughts and bouts of sadness. These feelings are valid and should be valued. Recognizing this and being a source of comfort patients can turn to if they choose to do so allows you to share in this range of emotions with the cancer patient.

If you’re going to ask them how they’re doing, be ready to listen without offering your opinion. They may just need time to vent and share their feelings so they don’t have to keep it bottled up all alone.

Instead of saying: “This is all part of God’s plan.” 

This statement assumes that the patient is religious, which not everyone in the world is (about a quarter of Americans alone report that they do not affiliate themselves with any religion, and there are multiple other religions besides Christianity). Beyond that, cancer patients are experiencing rapid changes in their lives. Hearing someone talk about “God’s plan” has the potential to make cancer patients think they were destined to get cancer, which is something no one should be made to feel, even if they don’t believe in a higher power.

My best advice on bringing religion into a cancer patient’s life? Don’t do it unless you know for a fact that the person is religious and you know their specific faith. If you want to pray for them or think it is part of God’s plan, that is fine, but don’t assume the cancer patient feels the same.

Say: “This is a tough time. I’m here for you.”

At the end of the day, this statement is an excellent one for almost any situation. It acknowledges that, yes, cancer is tough, while also allowing the patient to know you are there for them without pushing your feelings onto them. Using this phrase shows compassion, and this statement does it without bringing religion into it.

Sometimes the best things you can say to a cancer patient are the simplest, and this is something we always appreciated hearing.

This post was originally posted on A Ballsy Sense of Tumor.

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Thinkstock photo by Galina Cherryka

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