Talking with Someone Who Has Cancer

“It is not easy talking to someone who has a life-threatening health issue, even for those of us who deal with it every day,” says McLeod Oncologist, Dr. Sreenivas Rao. “So, we understand how difficult you find it when faced with a friend or family member who is a cancer patient. This article includes some suggestions and some straight talk directly from cancer survivors.”

First, be a good listener. Be respectful. Don’t be scared of silence. Don’t avoid their situation. That would be rude.

Sometimes the patient just needs to be alone. On the other hand, this person has many roles in life – parent, child, worker, church member, cook, bowler, golfer. They don’t want to become merely a “cancer patient.”  Talk about other areas of their life. Action can speak louder than words. If they played cards before the diagnosis, play cards with them now. If they went to the movies, take them to a movie.

When you do talk, maintain eye contact. Your body language can speak louder than your words. Don’t be afraid of them as a cancer patient. They are not contagious.

Before you give unsolicited advice, listen carefully. In fact, try to avoid giving advice. This person is an adult and likely has made adult decisions for many years. Being diagnosed with cancer does not automatically revert them to being a child.

Here is a list of things to AVOID, based on suggestions from actual cancer patients:

  • Avoid platitudes. A platitude is a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.”
  • Don’t say, “I know how you feel” or “I can relate.” You don’t. You can’t. Even if you have had cancer. Your attempt at showing sympathy may actually make the person angry.
  • Don’t say, “This is part of God’s bigger plan” or “God doesn’t give you a cross you can’t bear.”  These may well be true, but each person approaches religion and spirituality in their own way. And telling someone God decided they deserve cancer won’t help.
  • Don’t ask, “How are you?” That question raises issues of upcoming treatments, survivability and mortality. Give your concern and question more immediacy, “How are you today?”
  • Although it may be helpful for a cancer patient to retain a sense of humor, lame attempts at humor or insensitive remarks don’t help. For instance, “Well, the good news is you’re only losing one breast.” Or “Think of all the money you’ll save now that you won’t be buying cigarettes.”  If there is humor to be found in their situation, let the cancer patient find it.

Final Thought. We know you want to be supportive of cancer patients you know. One former cancer patient suggested the best thing you could say is, “I will be here for you in any way you need, in any way I can.”

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Sources: McLeod Health, American Cancer Society,, Cancer Etiquette: What to Say, What to Do When Someone You Know or Love Has Cancer by Rosanne Kalick,,, The Assertive Cancer Patient by Jeanne Sather, I Can’t Believe You Said That by Sherry Baker.