How To Talk To A Person With Cancer

How To Talk To A Person With Cancer: What To Say And Not To Say

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

It’s not always easy to know how to talk to someone with cancer and the most important thing is to listen.

In this article, we highlight some issues that you may find useful, but it is always the case that if they don’t feel like talking, let them know that’s OK, too, there is no rush.

And remember that there is no right or wrong way for a cancer patient, or for you,  to behave.

Dont try to change the way someone with cancer feels

When to talk to a person with cancer

Each person responds to their cancer diagnosis in their own way. Some may want to talk in detail. Others may not want to talk about it at all. Sometimes, the person’s need to talk changes from day-to-day. If they start the conversation,  let them take the conversation where they choose.  If they haven’t started the conversation ask if they would like to talk about it. This is a respectful way to find out what they need.
Let your friend know it’s okay if he or she doesn’t reply or want to talk.
Please remember that 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 hear and understand how they are feeling.

  • Don’t make light, judge, or try to change the way they feel or act.
  • Maintain eye contact. This gives your friend the sense that you are really present and listening carefully.
  • Do not say, “I know how you feel.” it could make the person with cancer upset because you really don’t know how they feel.

Put your own feelings and fears aside.

  • Don’t be afraid to talk with your friend. It is better to say, “I don’t know what to say” than to stop calling or visiting because it makes you feel bad.
  • If you’re feeling tearful, explain this to your friend, but be brief. You may have to stay away until you can be there for your friend, without your friend having to comfort you.

Be OK with silence

  • 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 better than noise and can be comforting.  It can help people think and they may have a lot going on in their minds.
  • If there is silence its Ok to wait until something is said, if you have nothing to say.

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.
  •  New/alternative treatments or cancer curing diets may not be what a person with cancer wants to hear about when they are trying to get to grips with their diagnosis and prognosis.  You may mean well but it is not required unless asked for.

Dont talk about other people you know who have had cancer

Unless you have an uplifting story that directly relates to the person you are talking to, it is best to stay away from the topic of other peoples cancer.

For example, if the person with cancer is concerned about taking a certain drug. and you know someone who is on that drug and is OK, then that can be a nice thing to tell them (and if appropriate you can introduce the two people so they can learn from experiences).  It is obviously not Ok to say that you know of an acquaintance with a similar cancer who died ….

What to say to someone diagnosed with cancer and what not to say

To help show your care and support:

  • I’m sorry this has happened to you.
  • If/when you feel like talking, I’m here to listen.
  • What are you thinking of doing, and how can I help?
  • I care about you.
  • I’m thinking of you.

Phrases that are unhelpful:

  • I know how you feel.
  • I know what you should do.
  • You will be ok
  • You are brave/strong
  • Keep fighting
  • Don’t worry.
  • How long do you have?
How To Talk To A Person With Cancer

Final thoughts

Be yourself and try not to worry about whether you are doing things right. Let words and actions come from your heart, and remember that this is the same person.

Further Reading

Talking To Someone With Cancer: Five Point Guide From Cancer Care Parcel

How To Talk To Your Friend With Cancer: Advice From A Cancer Patient

What Can I Do For My Friend With Cancer? Five Steps To Help

Talking to someone with cancer booklet from Macmillan

Four tips for choosing the right cancer gift

Cancer Gift Categories


  1. Totally agree with this, ppl always say “cheer up there may be a cure” with only 1% of CR funds going…

  2. Had most of that said to me! People can be so insensitive

  3. I think people honestly just don’t know what to say because I wouldn’t say anybody was purposely insensitive to me. I think it was easier for me to handle than it was for them.

  4. God. bless

  5. Be there to support them and listen if they want to talk God bless all who are suffering from this horrable illness and the family and freinds who are caring for them

  6. Im grateful.for all my friends and family..Always so supportive and encouraging..x

  7. A few times I’ve had “you still look the same” same as what? Were they hoping I looked like crap? Better? Worse? Then there’s the one that said “I’ll call you in a couple of weeks” still waiting 8 years later for that call. And the ones that didn’t come to see me in hospital because they didn’t want to be in the way. Unfortunately one finds out who the keepers are through adversity.

    1. i can so relate to this.

  8. It’s difficult to know what to say with any illness just pray for them and try to see them as often as you cac

  9. Caragh NicGabhann Amy McGowan that’s so eyeopening omg

  10. When you are fighting cancer and you see the pain in those you you love .you just don’t no what to say to them when they cry in your arms bless xx

  11. I appreciated when people said that I could beat this and I was strong it really did help and gave me the strength to carry on

  12. I was so strong & positive after my diagnosis of breast cancer and it does help , also the support of family & friends was a big help to me too xxx

  13. Sometimes the best thing someone can do is just to listen. Unfortunately not everyone feels able to do that , as it makes them feel uncomfortable. It’s better to be in touch and say something though even if you’re not sure what to say.

  14. Eli Richardson

    We appreciate your tips to maintain eye contact and to avoid making judgment or try to change their mood. One of my cousins was diagnosed with cancer, and we want to talk him into looking for a cancer center. We will keep this in mind until finding the right time to help him find a cancer group.

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