When a friend, relative or colleague has been diagnosed with cancer it can be very difficult to know what to say. Here’s how to avoid getting that first communication wrong...

We all want to try and say the right thing when someone we know has cancer, but may not quite know what it is and shy away. This is totally understandable. Offering support may be less about talking, however, and more about listening. How people react to cancer is very personal and only they know what they are going through and how they feel.

How ever well-meaning your offers of advice and support are, they are the expert and not you. They may want to talk about it, or not - it’s how you pick up the signals and react that counts.

What not to say

Knowing what not to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer can be as helpful as knowing what to say. What do people with cancer themselves say about it? A survey of more than 500 people by Live Better With revealed the most insensitive and upsetting comments said to people with cancer:

  1. Saying how well they look/seem
  2. Comments about personal appearance - hair loss, weight loss/gain, loss of breast(s)
  3. Making ‘knowledgeable’ comments about types of treatments
  4. Making comparisons with someone who has had a similar disease
  5. Telling them you understand how they feel
  6. Downplaying the diagnosis (“It’s only….breast/skin cancer etc" and commenting how easy treatment is
  7. Telling them not to worry or to stay positive

To avoid making cancer patients feel worse rather than better, here are three questions that you could think about asking. Try and keep them open-ended so that they can take the lead.

Three questions to ask

‘I’m sorry to hear about your diagnosis. How are you feeling today? Or, how have you been?’

If the person is not very forthcoming, don’t push it. Bear in mind that they may be answering the same questions over and over again to different people - tiresome, so don’t take it personally. 

They may just want to feel they are not a pitiable victim, but getting on with their lives - in which case you could talk about what you always talk about.

If they open up and tell you how awful it all is, say you are sorry and acknowledge it. They may just want you to listen, rather than “problem solve”.

‘What can I do to help?’

They can take the lead here - they may well have plenty of help already or need specific support eg, preparing meals, pet/child/garden care. We all want to help, but make sure it’s what’s needed, not what you think is needed.

Think about asking their family members or close friends about what you can do to help - they may find it easier to respond.

‘I understand if you don’t feel up to visitors, but would you like me to come and see you?’

Cancer treatment can cause terrible fatigue, so coping with lots of social contact may be exhausting. Don’t feel hurt if the answer is no, but leave the door open to future contact. Send a note or card to stay in touch. You can read our tips on how to write a card for someone with cancer here.

Your reaction matters

One thing that people with life-threatening illnesses find surprising and difficult to cope with is dealing with very emotional reactions from friends. They need you to be strong. If you find this impossible, think about talking to a support line or counsellor (see below) or joining our community forum.

Finally, a thread on our Community Forum reveals why the worst thing you can say to someone with cancer is nothing at all. While some members say how they became closer to some friends and made new ones through cancer, others found theirs vanished:

All those so called 'friends' who say they will visit but, never do. At first I was so upset then angry. My daughter said it's because they don't know how to cope with their feelings so avoid us. At first I said if it happened to them I would do the same, but now...I wouldn't.


Where to find help

  • The Haven offers counselling to partners, family members and close friends of those with breast cancer.

  • Macmillan Cancer Support helpline 0808 808 000 offers support to anyone affected by cancer

  • Marie Curie offer support to people affected by terminal cancer 0800 090 2309

By Hilly Janes

Our Live Better With Community Forum welcomes posts from everyone affected by cancer - do join in for help, support and tips.