When you hear that a loved one has cancer, you may feel stumped on what to say. Take some time and consider your words carefully. Some comments you’ve heard can seem well-meaning at first. But when examined more closely, these phrases end up being hurtful and inconsiderate.
There’s no perfect thing to say to someone with cancer, but you can make sure your words sound caring instead of careless. You may not be able to take away their pain, but you don’t want to add more without realizing it. The following list compares common unhelpful phrases with more positive messages for cancer patients.
1. Nothing at all
This might be one of the worst things to do. You might be nervous, afraid you’ll say the wrong thing and upset your loved one. But by saying nothing, you don’t acknowledge the enormous change in their life. You don’t recognize their reality.
Alternative: “I’m not sure what to say right now, but I’m here for you.”
Don’t know what to say? It’s common to feel tongue-tied when you know someone is facing cancer. It’s a life-changing event and could be fatal for them. But your loved one doesn’t need you to say the perfect thing.
They just need to know you care about them. You can learn more about their experience by being a good listener. But for now, just tell your loved one you’ll be there for them.
2. “I know how you feel.”
Even if you’ve had a similar diagnosis or know someone who has, everyone has a personal reaction to cancer. You don’t know how another person feels, not exactly. This statement shows you have made an assumption about them instead of asking them to share.
Alternative: “I can only imagine what you must feel like.”
This statement is similar to the one above but different in an important way. Saying you can only imagine what someone feels like shows you are trying to understand but don’t have all the information. It’s an open-ended statement and can be a gentle invitation for your loved one to fill in the blanks.
If you did have a similar diagnosis, you might say you’ve felt a lot like that yourself. They may feel some comfort talking to someone who understands their position. Saying you’ve felt something similar shows empathy while recognizing that your experiences are different.
3. “It could be worse, at least you don’t have X cancer.”
Nobody wants cancer no matter what kind it is. Cancer can be bad news regardless of the type, so trying to compare it to something worse is of little comfort. This comment dismisses the seriousness of the other person’s diagnosis, and you come off sounding insensitive.
Alternative: “I don’t know much about that kind of cancer. Do you want to talk about it?”
This comment shows your genuine interest in your loved one’s diagnosis. It also gives them room to decide if they feel comfortable talking more about it.
Maybe this is a good time for them to go into detail, or perhaps they aren’t ready. Either way, you show you care while allowing them the choice to share.
4. “I didn’t know you had cancer. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Maybe you would have been told eventually, but saying this sounds selfish and entitled. It’s the other person’s diagnosis and they aren’t obligated to tell anyone. Many people slowly let family and friends know, but it’s their story to tell whenever and in whatever way works for them. Repeatedly telling a cancer diagnosis story isn’t the most pleasant experience, so personally telling everyone isn’t realistic.
Alternative: “We’ll get through this together.”
Once you know about the diagnosis, it doesn’t matter who told you or how long it took. Your job is to show your loved one that you care. This encouraging message emphasizes that you’ll support them through thick and thin.
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5. “How are you, really?”
This is a probing question, and it could work depending on how well you know the person. If you two are close and you’ve already talked about their diagnosis a few times, you may be able to ask this.
If your loved one trusts you, they may let their guard down and share more. However, this question can be off-putting and far too personal for someone you don’t know well.
Alternative: “What do you feel like talking about today?”
This question is a safer bet, no matter how well you know someone. Even a close friend or family member may not want to go into the gritty details of their illness just because you asked. Talking about something other than their cancer might help them feel better some days.
6. “You don’t look sick.”
Maybe you are surprised by the news and unsure what to say when someone is sick, or genuinely think your loved one looks healthier than they are. Saying “you don’t look sick,” might seem like a compliment, but can imply that you doubt the seriousness of their diagnosis.
Your loved one may feel really sick some days, even if they don’t fit your image of a person with cancer. Also, some people with cancer don’t necessarily feel or look sick to others.
Alternative: “I’m sorry to hear about your diagnosis, but I’m here and I care about you.”
No matter how your loved one looks, let them know you care about them. Even if they don’t look sick, they may take treatments later that change their appearance or how they feel. Let them know they can count on you during the ups and downs of their cancer journey.
7. “Let me know if you need anything.”
You may feel like you’re offering help and support by saying this, but it’s a throwaway comment. It puts the burden of asking for help on your loved one. Reaching out may feel like an exhausting task by the time they need something.
Alternative: “I’ll bring supper over at 7 p.m. on Tuesday or Thursday. Would that work?”
You know they need help, so take the initiative. Give your loved one a couple of simple choices, and don’t make them sweat it after that. Volunteer to keep track of meals, chores, and other tasks that need to be done.
Suggest creating a sign-up sheet to keep everything organized. Once you make a few basic decisions, people can start pitching in, and your loved one won’t have to worry about the list anymore.
8. “I’m sure everything will be fine.”
This and other comments like, “It’ll all work out,” or, “You’ll be back stronger than ever,” can seem encouraging at first.
But everything may not be fine, so it’s not a realistic thing to say. This comment can sound dismissive, minimizing the intense emotions and difficult days that come with cancer. You can appear closed off to talking about anything uncomfortable or painful.
Alternative: “You’ve got this.”
You can say this whether your loved one has been sick from chemotherapy or having a good recovery day. It’s encouraging and carries a positive vibe, but doesn’t gloss over reality. The key message is that you care about your loved one and you’re there to support them.
9. Something that trivializes a change in their appearance
Avoid any comment like, “It’s only hair, it’ll grow back,” or, “At least you’ve been losing weight like you wanted to.” These statements are insensitive and minimize the struggle they may be having with their appearance.
Weight loss isn’t a positive goal when it’s the result of a life-threatening illness. Hair can grow back after chemotherapy, but it can take time and may look different than before. All of these changes can be unsettling.
Alternative: “You can count on me to be here. Do you want to talk about it?”
Your loved one wants you to recognize the seriousness of their cancer diagnosis. Significant weight loss and hair loss can be tough to hide. Be sensitive to this and offer a listening ear. If your loved one trusts you and the timing works, you might consider asking a more specific question like, “Do you feel like talking about your hair loss?”
10. “You’ll never be given more than you can handle.”
Some people may say this as a reminder to rely on one’s during tough times. But it can come off as a suggestion that a person’s been given cancer on purpose, like a test. And if the person doesn’t handle it well? They may feel inadequate or discouraged.
Alternative: “I’d love to sit with you as you wait for your next appointment. Would you be OK with that?”
Offer your time and presence when your friend might feel anxious or more emotional, like at a doctor’s appointment. People handle cancer differently. Some like having company and social support during medical visits, and others prefer privacy. Offer your company anyway, and your loved one will let you know what they are ready for.
Supporting Someone With Cancer
Learning how to support someone with cancer can feel overwhelming at first. More than anything, help your loved one knows you care and that you’ll be by their side. Your words don’t have to be perfect--they just need to share your love.
- “5 Tips for Talking to Someone With Cancer.” Rush University Medical Center, www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/5-tips-talking-someone-cancer
- “CancerCare Weighs In: What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer.” Cancer Care, August 6, 2015, www.cancercare.org/blog/cancer-i-care-i-weighs-in-what-not-to-say-to-someone-who-has-cancer
- Coscarelli, Anne, PhD. “Dos and Don’ts When Someone You Know Tells You ‘I Have Cancer.’” Simms/Mann Center, Spring 2013, www.simmsmanncenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/news-spring-2013.pdf
- Vastine, Courtney, and Duncan, Dan, L. “When a Loved One Has Cancer: Communication Dos and Don’ts.” Baylor College of Medicine, June 20, 2018, blogs.bcm.edu/2018/06/20/when-a-loved-one-has-cancer-communication-dos-and-donts/