When someone is dealing with illness even the most emotionally intelligent person can have a hard time knowing what to say. If you know someone who has a family member with cancer, it may feel difficult to think of what to say to them.
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Jump ahead to these sections:
- Supportive Words to Say to Someone with a Family Member Diagnosed with Cancer
- What to Avoid Saying to Someone’s Family Member Has Cancer
Some people don’t say anything at all because they don’t want to cause sadness or hurt. Other people scribble out generic sympathy messages and call it a day. But receiving specific and personalized condolences helps people feel cared for. And reminds them of the people they can call on in a moment of need.
(If you are the one who has a loved one who is dying of cancer and you are the executor of their estate, we have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.)
Here are a few suggestions for things you could say (and things you should avoid saying) when someone you know has a sick family member:
Supportive Words to Say to Someone with a Family Member Diagnosed with Cancer
When you reach out to someone to express sympathy, your message will be dictated by your relationship with them. If it’s a coworker or acquaintance you’re reaching out to, it’s okay to send a more restrained message. If you’re talking to a friend, you can be more personal. Here are some suggestions of things you could say. They can all be tailored to work for the person you’re sending the message to.
- “I know you have a lot on your plate, so I don’t want you to worry about cooking. I’d love to drop off meals for you to keep in the freezer. Are there any dietary restrictions I should keep in mind?”
Food is important when you’re sick or when you’re caring for someone with a major illness. But during stressful times cooking is often the last thing on someone’s mind. Bringing food to your friend and their family will help them keep their strength up. And it takes a big task off their to-do list.
Be considerate of dietary restrictions they may have. People going through chemo have a lot of foods they need to avoid. Before you bring anything over, try to find out what they can or can’t eat. Not much of a cook? You can arrange to have food delivered from their favorite restaurant or give them a food delivery gift card instead.
- “I’m glad to see you. How are you holding up? I know you’ve been dealing with a lot lately.”
This approach acknowledges that the person is going through something difficult. And it allows them the freedom to speak freely. Most importantly, it provides space for them to steer the direction of the conversation.
Sometimes people are feeling too emotional to talk about their family member’s illness. Or they’re tired of endlessly rehashing the topic with everyone they talk to. But sometimes they do want to talk about it. This question doesn’t shy away from the issue, but it lets your friend decide how much they want to share.
- “I have some books that helped me cope when my mom had cancer. Can I bring them to you?”
When someone is going through something you have also experienced, your first instinct might be to share your experience with them. If you’re not careful though, it can feel like you’re trying to overshadow their pain. But your experience can help. It’s just a matter of how you share that knowledge with them.
Think of resources you found comforting or helpful during your family member’s situation. Offer to share them with your friend or acquaintance. That leaves it up to them whether they want to ask for more information.
- “Can I hire a cleaning service to help you out?”
Chemotherapy treatments weaken the immune system. So people who are going through cancer treatment can get sick easily. They need to live in a clean environment to help them stay healthy. Their caretakers already have a lot to deal with, though.
Hiring a professional cleaning crew to clean the house before someone comes home from their first chemotherapy sessions can help a lot. This is something you can do that’s practical and beneficial to the patient’s family. You can even find cleaning companies that specialize in cleaning for cancer patients.
Don’t have the money to hire a cleaning service? You can offer to come over and clean yourself. Just be sure to research the best cleaning products to use for cancer patients.
And make sure you build in plenty of time to let the space air out. Cleaning products can be smelly. One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is nausea. You don’t want someone already dealing with nausea to come home to a house smelling strongly of chemicals.
- “I’d love to take you out for lunch or a movie to get your mind off things for a few hours. When would be a good day for you?”
If you’re the primary caretaker or support system for a sick family member, you probably don’t get much time for yourself. It’s easy to feel guilty about needing to ask for a break. It’s not as if the patient gets a break from their diagnosis.
But it’s important to offer your loved one opportunities to take a break from their caretaker role. Getting out of the house for a few hours of normalcy can be a big help. Inviting your loved one out for a cup of coffee or to see a movie gives them a little time to relax and recharge.
- “I registered for Be the Match to see if I am a potential bone marrow donor for your dad.”
This doesn’t work for all types of cancer. But cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma can be treated with bone marrow transplants. They can also help patients better tolerate chemotherapy. It’s a minimally invasive procedure that can save a life. Even if you aren’t a match for your friend’s loved one, it’s an incredible gesture.
For more tips, read our guide on how to support a loved one with a cancer diagnosis.
What to Avoid Saying to Someone’s Family Member Has Cancer
Part of the reason we avoid bringing up illnesses is that we’re worried about saying the wrong thing. This is also why people stick to cliches that seem trite. We feel safe saying those things.
But even some of the old standbys are things that can be upsetting for people to hear. Here is a roundup of things you should avoid saying.
- “Please let me know if I can do anything for you.”
You might be surprised to see this on the list. Why shouldn’t you offer to help? The problem with this phrase is it puts the burden on the person you’re saying it to. They have to think of something they need, then try and reach out to you and hope you were serious about the offer.
Instead, think of something concrete you can do to help and explicitly state it. The person will be grateful for the specificity. They know what you can help with and that you’ll (hopefully) follow through when they need you.
- “It could be worse.”
On the surface, you may think you’re being reassuring saying something like this. You might continue by saying that cancer treatments have gotten better. Or talk about how other cancers have higher mortality rates. But even if those things may be true, they come off as minimizing.
Every cancer diagnosis is terrifying for patients and their family members. You don’t want to make it seem like you’re dismissing their very real fear and anxiety.
- “This is a good time to work on improving your relationship.”
Sometimes people’s relationships with their family members are complicated. If you know someone is estranged from their sick family member, you may be tempted to encourage them to mend fences. Resist this urge.
Unless you are very close to this person, it’s not your business. Odds are you don’t know all the ins and outs of their relationships with their family. They likely understand that their time to reconnect is limited. But they need to be able to process that without people judging them or pushing them.
- “I have some essential oils you can buy that I know will help your husband’s cancer. I’ll even give you a new customer discount!”
There are a lot of things wrong with this statement. First, essential oils do not cure cancer. Do they smell good? Yes! Can they make you feel relaxed? Sure. But they won’t cure diseases. And it’s disrespectful to try to sell someone something when they’re in crisis. Cancer is frightening. Taking advantage of this fear to generate a profit is not okay.
- “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
This is a common line that people use as a go-to expression of sympathy. It’s still one we would urge you to avoid. Not everyone is religious. And even within certain faiths, people have their own way of worshipping.
You don’t want to force your religious perspective on anyone. Not to mention, this sentiment won’t help. It can be quite hurtful. It can feel like you’re erasing their belief system.
Even if you are speaking to a devout believer, it may not bring them the comfort you expect. People who believe in God still feel angry and overwhelmed when a family member battles cancer. They may not feel like they can handle it. This kind of sentiment can make them feel like their belief isn’t good enough.
- “She’s strong. She’s a fighter. She’ll be okay.”
Again, this is a statement that seems positive on the surface. But it can be seen as peddling false hope. Even cancer with a good prognosis can be fatal. Telling people their loved one will be okay can feel dismissive. It also implies that anyone who dies from cancer just didn’t fight hard enough.
Be There for a Loved One With Cancer
In difficult times, people often crave human connection. If someone is dealing with the stress of a sick family member, a small moment of kindness can be a real balm. Talking about topics like illness and mortality can be uncomfortable. But no matter how unsettling it feels for you, your friend or acquaintance is surely struggling even more.
Take a little time to put together a specific and personalized sympathy message. You can send it in a text, get well card, or with a gift basket. It will be appreciated. In fact, it will likely be appreciated more than you could know.