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What To Say To Someone With Cancer

Simply put, finding out someone you love has cancer is extremely difficult. Questions like, ‘What should I say? How can I help them?‘ can run through your mind with no easy answer.

Our human instinct is to try to make everything better, to solve this horrible problem or freeze up and ignore it and by doing either we can (if we’re speaking honestly) make things worse.

Firstly, know that you’re not alone if you don’t know what to say or how to act. Feeling sorry for your loved one and guilty that you’re in good health is common. Cancer can bring up a lot of fear around mortality and health but it’s important to not burden your loved one with these feelings. Be open and honest with them but it is difficult for them to fully support your feelings on their cancer when they are going through cancer.

One thing to remember is that you are not expected to make everything bad go away for your loved one, that’s both impossible and not what’s needed. Many simply want confirmation and that you’re there for them, that you’re in this together. A text, a call, a note through the letter box. There doesn’t need to be a grandiose speech, simple and small words can do so much. 

We’ve heard over and over again that people diagnosed with cancer lose friends. A Survey conducted by Maggie’s found that 9% of people actually avoided their friend with cancer after finding out they were diagnosed. So simply being there and talking in any capacity can really help your loved one not feel alone.

Your loved one with cancer is the same person as your loved one before cancer. If your relationship involves silly comments on the weather or minor inconsequential life updates then continue on. Life carries on and you’re loved one doesn’t want to be left behind. Keep them in the loop as you would always do. You might not get an immediate or any response because all of the appointments and treatments can make them tired. Be patient with yourself, as finding the right words are difficult, and be patient with your loved one. 


What Our Clients Wanted To Hear

We asked our clients what they wished their loved ones would have said or done during their cancer journey and all the feedback had the same themes running through.

  • I’m here whenever you want to talk
  • It’s understandable that you’re feeling sad
  • You’re not on your own
  • Can I come to appointments with you?
  • We’ll get through this together
  • It’s ok not to be ok
  • I love you so much
  • How are you feeling?

As you can see from a lot of feedback we received, much of what people wanted to hear is based on connection, not being alone, having loved ones support and being validated in their feelings. They need and want to know that there’s a team with them every step of the way and that you’re in their team.


What not to say to someone with cancer

Though lots of common phrases and sayings are well intentioned, sometimes they can actually make someone feel worse.

Extreme or false positivity phrases like, ‘You’ve got this‘ and ‘You’re so strong‘, though well meaning can have the opposite effect. Cancer is a life breaking and changing thing, some days no matter how hard you try, you can’t be strong. This type of phrasing could make someone feel dejected when they don’t feel strong and could make them hesitant when being honest about their un-positive feelings in the future. 

Similarly, we would suggest avoiding ‘I know…‘ statements; ‘I know how you feel‘, ‘I know what you should do‘ etc. because the truth is, you don’t know. No one really can. Though you can sympathise and empathise, you can’t fully understand. 

Instead use phrases like ‘I’m so proud of you‘, ‘Be gentle on yourself‘, ‘This is such a hard journey, you’re doing so well‘. These phrases put less pressure on your loved one and reassures them with your understanding of the difficulty of cancer. 

The final thing we would advise against saying is nothing at all. It can be difficult but remember that you don’t need to save your loved one and resolve all their feelings. So take a moment and speak from the heart, or the funny bone if your loved one prefers. All contact/reaching out is greatly appreciated and goes towards making sure they’re not alone.


These points aren’t strict rules but a rough guide to help you tackle a subject you might not be comfortable with.

If you're struggling with a loved ones cancer diagnosis you are just as worthy of getting support.