9 Things to Say to Someone with Cancer

Comforting a loved one with cancer

By: Jennifer Jasutis

Hearing the words “you have cancer” is a scary experience for anyone and is likely to turn a person’s world upside down. If a loved one has recently received a cancer diagnosis, you may be struggling to find the right words to say to comfort them. Though you may not understand exactly what your friend or loved one is feeling, you can certainly serve as a source of support to them in a trying time.

Knowing what to say to someone who has cancer is not easy. Keep in mind that this diagnosis is new territory for your friend too. There are many unknowns and unfamiliar emotions that surface as a patient navigates this new world. Keep the following in mind as you consider how to communicate:

  • Be compassionate in your tone and be cautious of saying anything that could be taken as negative or hurtful.
  • Check in with the caregiver before contacting your friend directly, as may be too tired or sick to talk.
  • Be consistent in your approach. No matter what course of action you take, it makes a lot more impact when you are consistent in your efforts.

Before you blurt out something you might regret, consider one of these nine helpful things to say to someone who has cancer.

“What are your treatment options and how can I help you?”

When a friend is recently diagnosed with cancer, the number of treatment options available to her can vary widely depending on her specific situation or diagnosis. Showing an interest in how your friend will receive cancer treatment shows a genuine concern for how they will fight the disease. Focusing on the treatment plan and prognosis can help a friend concentrate more on action and less on how frightened or unsure they may feel.

People can be reluctant to ask for help, particularly if they are feeling more vulnerable due to a recent cancer diagnosis. Whether it is offering to drive a friend to appointments, cleaning their house, picking up prescriptions, or preparing meals for others in their household, any amount of assistance will be appreciated. Being an intentional and proactive source of help can be a relief to a friend if they are hesitant or unsure how to ask.

“I am here for you.”

When it comes to knowing what to say to someone who has cancer, simply stating that you are there can be a relief to the person you love. A recent cancer diagnosis can change the way someone sees the world and sometimes just knowing a friend is there can improve one’s perspective. Helping a friend maintain a positive outlook on their situation is important in how they approach their impending battle. No one wants to fight cancer alone. Stating that you will be present for your friend and offering your support in any way can go a long way to someone with cancer.

Demonstrate tangible ways that you will be there for a friend during a cancer battle, such as:

Your friend may feel overwhelmed so present these resources in a way that is not taken as pushy when showing your support.

Use humor when appropriate.

If appropriate, use humor to alleviate stress. Though cancer is no laughing matter, cracking a joke can help take your friend’s mind off a negative time and help lift their spirits. Obviously, you do not want to joke around if the situation is very delicate or the mood is not right for humor. Use your best judgment in each situation so that you are not perceived as insensitive or uncaring. However, if used correctly, humor can do a lot to diffuse a tense time and improve a loved one’s mood. After all, it has been said that laughter is the best medicine and if your loved one has maintained a good sense of humor, she will likely appreciate a good joke to lighten the mood.

“I am sorry you are going through this.”

Showing empathy for a friend’s situation conveys an understanding of the seriousness of the diagnosis. While it is normal for a friend to feel scared or uncertain after receiving a cancer diagnosis, having a compassionate loved one who expresses concern and understanding can make dealing with the unknown a little more manageable. You do not have to say that you know what they are going through (because you probably don’t) to empathize; you just have to acknowledge the significance of the diagnosis. Keep your tone positive and kind; consider one of these options:

  • “I wish this wasn’t happening to you and I love you.”
  • “I know this is a difficult time, but you are strong, and you can do this.”
  • “Never, ever give up. I am right beside you.”
  • “We will get through this together.”

“If you ever want to talk or vent, I am happy to listen.”

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can evoke many unpleasant emotions, from anger, guilt, and fear, to confusion, anxiety, and sadness. Serving as a sounding board for a friend recently diagnosed with cancer plays an important role in their treatment journey and recovery. By offering to talk to them about their thoughts and feelings, or just simply listening as they express frustrations, you will provide valuable comfort and support. Listen with an open mind and heart and try to avoid reacting negatively or judging the things being said.

Someone with cancer will appreciate the opportunity to have an outlet where they can work through complicated and new emotions and be free to express what they are feeling. Prepare yourself ahead of time to hear honest, raw thoughts and feelings about your friend’s recent cancer diagnosis.

“I am thinking of you during this time.”

Living as a cancer patient can feel lonely at times and be an isolating experience. When you are thinking of your friend or loved one, pick up the phone and let them know it. A phone call or a quick text can brighten the day of someone undergoing cancer treatment. Whether your friend answers your call right away or responds to your text the next day, she knows you are thinking of her during her difficult time.

If you are unable to talk on the phone or texting is not your style, sending a brief email is another way to show your thoughts are with your friend. An email is not as urgent as a call or text and allows your friend the time they may need to respond as they feel up to it. If your friend is fighting cancer a long distance from you and you want to show your concern, consider sending flowers, balloons, or some type of edible arrangement.

“Let me know when you will be up for a visit.”

Time is one of our most valuable resources and sharing it with a friend recently diagnosed with cancer conveys your sincere concern, love, and support. Rearrange your schedule and priorities when you can to accommodate spending this time with your friend. Your loved one’s cancer is present 24/7; a visit, no matter how short or casual, is a wonderful way to distract them from the stress and issues cancer brings to their daily life.

Keep in mind that your friend’s state of mind or health might change from day to day so be sure your visit is welcome and upbeat. If your friend is not feeling well or does not have the energy for activities, it is enough to simply sit with a friend while they sleep. Your presence will be felt and appreciated.

“Focus on getting better and I (or we) can help with everything else.”

A recent cancer diagnosis brings with it uncertainty and new stresses. Your friend or loved one may feel overwhelmed at the thought of managing their daily life as they undergo cancer treatment. Your offer of help will be most effective if you state specific tasks you can help with. These specific tasks can include:

  • Offering to drop off meals or groceries or enlist the help of others and organize a meal chain on a shared care calendar (be sure to ask about and communicate any dietary restrictions)
  • Organize a video call with some fun activities
  • Coordinate messaging and updates for friends and family through a site like Lotsa Helping Hands

This type of support demonstrates to your loved one that their battle is shared and that they are loved. Any amount of help you can offer allows your friend to focus their precious energy on persevering through cancer treatment and beginning the especially important healing process.

“You look beautiful.”

Cancer can dramatically alter one’s physical appearance. If your loved one is undergoing chemotherapy, they will likely experience hair loss. This side effect can take an emotional toll on someone going through cancer. Losing one’s hair can deal a major blow to one’s confidence and create feelings of hopelessness. Cancer treatment often makes patients nauseous or sick and causes drastic changes in their appetite. You may notice your loved one is losing weight and appearing thinner than usual. Reinforce your friend’s inner and outer beauty with the following phrases:

  • “You are beautiful inside and out and cancer cannot change that.”
  • “There are so many things to love about you and this disease will never change who you are on the inside.”
  • “You may not look or feel like yourself, but you are a fighter with a strong spirit.”
  • “I love you no matter what.”

Helping your friend recognize that cancer does not define who they are can make them feel empowered and reassured. Cancer has the potential to physically change your loved one, but it will not change why you love them. Their illness is challenging and may change their appearance, but you love them unconditionally – and that is a powerful sentiment to share.

Final Thoughts on Knowing What to Say to Someone with Cancer

You may not know where to begin when it comes to supporting a friend who has cancer. A recent cancer diagnosis for your loved one also impacts friends and families, but it is important to know what to say and how to provide support to help maintain a positive outlook. Though you are not necessarily walking in their shoes, it is helpful to show that you are walking beside them on their cancer journey and that your friend can continue to count on you when things get tough.

Knowing what to say to someone who has cancer can seem like tricky territory, particularly if you have not before dealt with it. Rest assured, Lotsa Helping Hands makes many resources available to reference if you feel like you might need some guidance. Remember that your friend is going through a trying time and most likely just wants to know they are not going through it alone. Showing you care with these helpful statements conveys support and empathy, assuming you are sincere, consistent, and follow through on your promises. After all, heartfelt communication is key when it comes to supporting a friend who has cancer.