How Do You Communicate with Someone Who Has Cancer?

Reviewed on 1/27/2021

When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to talk to them in a way that conveys the support and care you feel for them while being sensitive to the fear and uncertainty the person with the disease is feeling.
When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to talk to them in a way that conveys the support and care you feel for them while being sensitive to the fear and uncertainty the person with the disease is feeling.

When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to know what to say. The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends a number of ways to show your support: 

  • Let the person who has cancer decide what to talk about and how much they want to share. 
  • Words aren’t always needed. 
  • Actively listen. Give your loved one your full attention and don’t rush the conversation. 
  • Maintain eye contact and avoid distractions. 
  • Carefully consider your words. Acknowledge the difficulty the person is going through. It’s better to tell someone you don’t know what to say or do than to avoid them because you are afraid you won’t know what to say. 
  • Things to say that show care and support:
    • I care about you.
    • I’m thinking about you.
    • I'm sorry this happened to you.
    • I’m here to listen whenever you want to talk. 
    • How can I help?
  • Things to avoid saying that are not usually helpful or supportive: 
    • I know exactly how you feel.
    • I know what you need to do.
    • Someone else I know had the exact same diagnosis.
    • You’ll be fine.
    • Don’t worry.
    • How long do you have to live?
  • Ask questions with caution. People who have cancer are asked a lot of questions and they may become exhausted trying to answer them. Consider questions carefully and don’t ask too many at once. 
  • Ask if it is ok to give advice. Not everyone wants unsolicited advice, and for cancer patients it can be stressful. Ask your loved one for permission to share your advice, and if you notice they are not receptive, stop. 
  • Communicate your feelings honestly, but briefly. You may feel fear, anxiety, anger, or confusion, but dwelling on these difficult emotions can overwhelm and upset your loved one with cancer. 
  • Speak to a counselor on your own for support if you need help dealing with your emotions. 
  • Talk about topics that interest your loved one that do not involve cancer. Help them continue their regular interests and ensure that they get a break from difficult conversations. 
  • Help your loved one stay involved in their normal activities and routines to help them cope. 
  • Help them prioritize what they want to do, and delegate tasks to others when needed. 
  • Ask if they need practical support. 
  • Offer specific examples of things you can do, such as taking them to appointments, helping with child care or pet care, or if they need you to run errands. 
  • Many people find it difficult to ask for help so offering specific actions can make things easier for your loved one.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Reviewed on 1/27/2021
References
https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/talking-with-family-and-friends/talking-about-cancer/talking-with-someone-who-has-cancer