In the age of email and text messages, a handwritten note or card is an especially thoughtful gesture. Taking the time to write (and mail) a note shows you care. And, unlike emails or text messages, a handwritten note can be put on display; a ready reminder that there are people who are thinking about you and who wish you well.

As the holiday season gets closer, you might be starting to think about sending cards to your friends and family. If you have a loved one who is living with cancer, sending them a holiday card might feel a bit daunting. Should you mention cancer at all? Talk about your own holiday plans? Try to be funny or avoid making jokes altogether? These questions are normal. It can be hard to know what to say to someone with cancer.  But putting pen to paper and writing some comforting words for someone with cancer is a simple way to provide support; even from a distance. 

To help you craft the perfect message for the cancer patient in your life, we spoke to Alison and Brian of From Me to You; a letter-writing charity doing fantastic work for cancer patients and their families. As the champions of letter-writing in the cancer community, they know firsthand just how valuable a thoughtful note can be. After all, Alison wrote Brian letters of support for two years as he underwent treatment for bowel cancer. Now, Brian (who is happily cancer free) and Alison run From Me to You together; encouraging cancer patients and their loved ones to exchange letters as a way of connecting and reflecting throughout the cancer experience.

Alison and Brian together. Used with permission from From Me to You.

Without further ado, here are some tried and true tips from Alison and Brian (with a few lovely card suggestions thrown in!)

How should I start my card?

“The opening line of a letter is often the most difficult,” says Alison. If you’re at a loss for words, the key is to be honest. Here are a few suggestions:

If you’ve been quiet since your loved one’s diagnosis, address this up-front:

I bet you wonder why I haven’t been in touch. I just didn’t know what to say. I’m now going to put that right with a letter.

I have no idea how you are coping. I find myself, for once, lost for words, but please know I am thinking of you. 

If nothing feels like a good fit for the first line, try a humorous approach:

The part of this letter I was most worried about was this first line, but now I’ve started, it’s done.

The key, as always, is to be yourself. Put yourself in the position of the person you’re writing to; what would you want to hear if you were receiving this letter? It’s okay to acknowledge that you’re feeling awkward or unable to find the “perfect words” – just keep writing!

how to write a card letter

What are some encouraging words that I can write to a friend with cancer

After you’re past the first line, dive straight into the main part of your letter. Alison and Brian recommend that you begin by choosing a topic to write about, as this will make your letter-writing feel less intimidating.

“It may be office gossip for a work colleague, stories from the school gates, or family updates,” write Alison and Brian. No matter the subject, “anecdotes of everyday life connect the reader back with the real world” – and this can be a pleasant change for people who are spending lots of time at home in bed, or travelling to and from the hospital.

Once you’ve chosen a topic, get writing! Feel free to provide lots of detail, and bring your reader along with you! It’s fun to read about the little details of others’ lives; even for a few brief minutes.

If you’re stuck for topics, you could write about nature (the changing seasons), childhood recollections, or shared stories that your reader will appreciate. Even small observations can really help to draw your reader out of their day-to-day routine and give them pause to think and reflect.

I feel awkward talking about the good parts of my life. How can I write to someone with cancer without seeming boastful?

“Don’t feel guilty that you’re having fun,” Alison and Brian encourage. “Write about films you’ve seen, concerts you’ve been to, and books you’ve read.” Your reader wants to hear about your normal life, and it wouldn’t make sense to “edit out” the good parts. For your letter to be as genuine and friendly as possible, it has to be honest!

That said, it’s important to strike a balance. Avoid excessive bragging or droning on about your every success (this is good advice no matter who you’re writing to…)

Ultimately, you should strive to write from the heart. You don’t have to be a prize-winning author or wordsmith to bring a smile to someone’s face. If you’re writing authentically, that’s all that matters.

What should I avoid writing to someone living with cancer? 

“Try to stay away from other people’s cancer stories,” Brian recommends – “be respectful that everyone’s experience is personal.” 

Similarly, avoid offering advice or opinions about your reader’s treatment choices, prognosis, or situation. Trust that your reader knows and understands their options best. 

It’s also a nice idea, Brian notes, to ask your reader how they are doing today rather than “how they are doing” in general. It’s easier to talk about the here and now, rather than feeling pressured to summarize an entire cancer experience in a few short lines.

How should I end my card? 

When you’re drawing to the end of your letter, it’s also best to avoid being too emotional or overly sympathetic or empathetic. “Keep the tone the same as the rest of the letter,” writes Alison. A simple I will keep thinking of you,” or “I wish you much love and strength” or “I’m sending you a big hug” is a perfect way to end your note. 

Lastly, Alison and Brian urge you: “don’t over-promise! You may choose to write again but know that the reader is grateful for this one letter.” It’s better to avoid setting expectations; endeavour to write again, but don’t risk disappointing your reader or yourself with a rigid writing schedule. 

5 Holiday Card-Writing Tips for Cancer Patients: 

  • Don’t ignore the holiday season. Christmas, as they say, is coming. And it’s best to acknowledge this up-front rather than awkwardly dodge the obvious. Alison and Brian recommend that you “enquire sensitively about plans for the holidays.” This is a nice way to acknowledge that you understand the festive period might be different than usual for your reader.
  • Don’t boast. It’s best not to frame your own holiday preparations boastfully. Instead, try detailing the highs and lows in all their humorous glory! A mishap with your meal prep? Trouble finding the perfect gift for strange Uncle Boris? A cute story about your daughter’s Christmas-tree-shopping experience? All these make for perfect holiday chat.
  • Think about little festive anecdotes to include. Write about decorating the tree (your favourite ornaments, perhaps?) or your favourite holiday films. Chat about your gift plans, or what games you want to play with friends.
  • Share your thoughts about winter. You don’t have to write about holidays as a rule. Instead, consider reflecting on winter, the weather, the usual heating woes, or the pleasant time spent in front of a warm fire.
  • Send a personalised note. “Don’t send the round-robin letter you may be sending to other friends,” write Alison and Brian. Instead, write something more personal. Although it can be tempting to include your loved one with the rest of your holiday mailing list, their circumstances require a bit more consideration. A hand-written note is the perfect way to convey your concern and care at a time when emotions – and stress – may be running high. 

No matter the season, writing a card is always a meaningful gesture.