What to say to someone diagnosed with cancer

When someone you love has cancer, the news can hit hard. Cancer is frightening – both for those receiving the diagnosis and the people who love them.

So, you want to support a close friend or family member who has received a cancer diagnosis. How do you do that? What can you say or do to show your loved one what they mean to you as they battle cancer?

What to say when someone has cancer

It’s OK if you don’t know what to say to someone with cancer. It’s tough news to receive, and the topic can be very sensitive. You may feel worried because you don’t know what the person needs or wants to hear – that’s totally normal.

One thing that can bother a patient with cancer is people feeling pity for them. So how do you avoid that?

According to Jozie King, LCSW, who counsels patients with cancer for OSF HealthCare, you should just be yourself. The most comforting words for someone with cancer to hear likely have nothing to do with cancer.

“Patients want to be treated the same as before the cancer diagnosis came along,” Jozie said. “They don’t want others to feel sorry for them or to be treated like a patient at home. They don’t want every part of their life to change.

“Whatever can remain normal, that’s what we should try to do, including your interpersonal dynamics,” she said. “Try to bring in some kind of distraction or humor. Go to lunch or a movie or have a game night.”

How to support a cancer patient emotionally

Every person’s cancer case is different, so your best bet is to follow their lead. Start by asking questions.

“How someone handles stress and illness is specific to that person,” Jozie said. “We can’t assume what would be best. We have to be honest with ourselves that we might not know how to help them, even if it’s our spouse, so we have to be open about that.

“Open the conversation and let the patient take the lead,” she said. “Ask, ‘How can I help you? What can I do for you?’ Then let them take the lead to share with you how they need help at that time.”

And what they need may change at any point in treatment. In fact, it almost always changes, so keep asking the question.

Everyone assumes they’ll bring a meal or offer to mow the lawn, but you should ask before doing that. You might have a good idea for a meal, but because of treatment, the person is unable to enjoy it. They may have food restrictions or find a particular smell nauseating, and having to watch family enjoy a meal they can’t also enjoy makes it harder.

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Instead of a meal train, donate a gift card so they can use it on what they want when they want it, or offer to pick up their groceries.

“If you can’t find the right words, just be there with them in silence,” Jozie said. “Not everything requires action or a response. Sometimes just being present is helpful. It’s often enough to just listen. You don’t even have to know encouraging words to say as long as you’re listening.

“Automatically giving positive responses and trying to lighten the mood can backfire, too,” Jozie said. “Hearing ‘You’re going to get through this. It will be fine,’ can often be upsetting to a cancer patient who needs their fear and sadness to be validated. A lot of times we don’t want to admit we don’t know what to do, but just to say that and admit it helps open up everything.”

Emotional support goes beyond words

You should follow through with what you say you will do.

“Patients often tell me, ‘People call to ask how I’m doing, but they don’t really mean it.’ The patients just answer, ‘Oh, I’m doing OK,’ and don’t really engage,” Jozie said. “Saying ‘Call me if you need anything’ can be empty.

“You may have to initiate and follow through. Don’t wait for the patient to reach out to you, because they more than likely won’t for fear that they are a burden to others.”

A self-reliant person may not feel comfortable talking or may have a hard time accepting help. But you can be sure they are appreciative of your support, and may end up accepting your offers if you continue to be there for them, Jozie added.

Last Updated: February 15, 2023

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About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and was a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: Cancer