What to Say to Someone with Cancer

When a loved one tells you that they have cancer, your initial reaction is most likely to provide words of support.  That’s awesome! Unfortunately, it can often be difficult to put into words exactly how you are feeling when trying to show support for your loved one.  I thought it would be helpful to outline what to say (and what not to say) to someone with cancer, based on my own experiences as a breast cancer survivor.

I am going to preface this post with a bit of a disclaimer:  I am not sharing flat-out insensitive things that people say to those fighting cancer.  I’d say that most people know what topics to avoid when talking to someone with cancer. (If you really want to know what those topics are from my opinion, check out this video.)

Instead, for this post I am taking mostly-supportive comments and suggesting how one could level-up those sentiments to something that will really touch the heart of your loved one with cancer.

I also don’t want you to stress about this.  As a cancer survivor myself, I can almost 100% GUARANTEE you that your loved one with cancer is not going to be nitpicking what you say.  In fact, they probably won’t process much of what you say.  

Which is another reason to level-up your supportive words.  

The typical platitudes really don’t register in your mind when you’re worrying about whether or not you’re dying.  What sticks out are the people who said something INCREDIBLY supportive during this difficult time.

That’s what I’m wanting to share with you today.

I’m hopeful that this article will help you cut through the flurry of cancer sentiments that your loved one is hearing over…and over…and over…so that you can REALLY touch their heart during this difficult time.

TRY NOT TO SAY: “My ______ had/died of (an unrelated) cancer.”

It’s human nature to want to connect with someone by establishing common ground.  By talking about someone you know who has had (or even died from) cancer, you are conveying to your loved one that you have an idea of the gut-wrenching journey he or she is facing.

However, the fact of the matter is that we ALL know someone who has had cancer.  Most of us also know someone who has died of cancer.  

We all know it sucks.  

So that’s really not the most supportive statement.

This is especially true of unrelated cancer.  Cancer is such a broad illness and every type is SOOO different.  It would be like walking up to someone with a Ford F-350 and saying “Nice truck.  Vehicles are cool.  I would know…my mom drives a Kia.”

TRY THIS INSTEAD: “My __________ is a 10-year survivor of the same cancer.  Can I give her your number?”

Hearing that it’s possible to make it through treatment for the same cancer and THRIVE for many years afterwards is much more helpful.  Depending on your friend, it might be even more helpful to facilitate a connection between your loved one and a survivor of the same cancer.  

Don’t force it, though!  

TRY NOT TO SAY: “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Even if it’s true, your loved one with cancer will probably be hearing this statement a lot and it will become a blur of pseudo-support.

I’m a person of faith, so I always appreciate when someone genuinely tells me they are praying for me.  However, after a while most of the “thoughts and prayers” statements went in one ear and out the other.  

TRY THIS INSTEAD: “I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble with _________.  I’ll be praying/hoping for _________.”

What stuck out to me when I was fighting cancer was when a friend would come up to me and tell me something specific that they had been praying for.  This showed me that they were paying attention to me and were genuinely concerned about what was going on.

Whether it’s prayer or good vibes, being specific about what you’re hoping for will really show that you’re thinking of your loved one.

TRY NOT TO SAY: (Text message) “How are you feeling today?”

Sending text messages of support is something I would HIGHLY recommend, especially as your loved one gets further into their treatment. Fighting cancer can be really lonely after the initial shock wears off.  The support naturally tapers off…especially when people realize you probably won’t be dying.

However, even simple tasks like responding to text messages can feel daunting when going through cancer treatment. Knowing I had unanswered texts sitting on my phone always made me feel guilty, because I really was SO appreciative of each and every message.

TRY THIS INSTEAD:  (Text message) “Just wanted you to know that I’m thinking of you and I hope treatment went well today. Don’t worry about replying!”

Text messages like this will convey your sentiment without burdening your loved one with the need to respond. However, it leaves the door open for them in case they ARE feeling up for a conversation.

I always appreciated when friends or family sent a sweet text message with a reminder that I didn’t need to reply.  This was SO welcome!  

TRY NOT TO SAY: “You’re so brave.”

This statement, even though it is so kind and supportive, always made me uncomfortable.

I wasn’t brave. 

If you look up the definition of “brave,” you will see that being brave means facing something dangerous without fear.

And, holy crap, was I fearful.

I’m STILL scared of cancer four years later!

Frankly, cancer patients are doing what they HAVE to do if they want to kill their cancer, whatever that treatment looks like.  I can guarantee that most of us don’t feel like brave heroes.  We do what ANYONE would do in that situation.  We don’t really have a choice.  It’s either face treatment or certain death.  

TRY THIS INSTEAD: “I’m proud of you.”

When people compliment cancer patients for their bravery and strength, I think the main sentiment they are trying to convey is that they are proud of their loved one.

Say that instead.

They can’t argue with YOUR emotions.

TRY NOT TO SAY: “I bought this for you.”

Gifts are a wonderful show of support, and I received many extremely thoughtful gifts when I was going through treatment.

However, keep in mind your loved one’s needs.  Are they drowning in medical bills?  Has their income been slashed due to reduced hours or short term disability? Then a scented candle probably isn’t the strongest show of support. (Although, again, I’m sure they’ll truly appreciate the sentiment.)

If you really want to purchase a gift, consider something practical that would be beneficial to them during surgery recovery or treatment. Maybe even ask them for their list of needs and offer to shop from that list. I have written a few blog posts about helpful items to have during these times, including packing for the hospital, mastectomy recovery, and chemotherapy essentials. Purchasing all of these must-have items on their own really adds up!

TRY THIS INSTEAD: “Here’s some cash (or an Amazon gift card)”

Cancer is so stinking expensive! Not only are there increased medical bills, but loss of income as well.  Money will be tight for your loved one.  If you’re in a position to buy them gifts, consider giving them cash instead.

Allowing your loved one to shop for exactly what they need from the comfort of their own home would be very appreciated. Having additional cash to go toward bills is a HUGE help.

TRY NOT TO SAY: “Let me know if I can help.

This statement is used a lot when people genuinely want to help, but they don’t really know how.

Honestly, your loved one probably doesn’t know how you help, either. So the odds of them taking you up on this offer are slim to none, no matter how genuine the offer and no matter how desperately you want to help.

TRY THIS INSTEAD: “I’m going to drop off dinner/mow your lawn/watch your kids this week.  What day would be best?”

The best way to support your loved one through service is to just do it!  Minimize the amount of back-and-forth planning and action required on their part. And, most importantly, don’t flake out!  

TRY NOT TO SAY: “Congratulations on beating cancer!”

This is another one that seems like a natural show of support, but this statement can carry a heavy load!

In my opinion, being a cancer survivor is not a winning feat. In no way do I feel victorious over cancer. It robbed me of my breasts, my ability to bear children, and continues to negatively impact my life physically and emotionally. I have to watch for recurrence for the rest of my life.

Does that mean I’m living life with a victim mentality? Absolutely not. It’s just the reality of going through cancer treatment.

On the other side of the coin, talking about cancer in terms of winning and losing implies that those who have died from terminal cancer have “lost.” We all know that isn’t how it works. It’s not about winning and losing. It’s about how different cancers respond to different treatments for different individuals.

Survivor guilt is the real deal and it could be a significant part of your loved one’s survivorship. So talking about “beating” cancer only amplifies that guilt.

TRY THIS INSTEAD: “I’m here to support you during your survivorship. How can I help?”

To sum it all up, your loved one isn’t finished with cancer when the last treatment is over. After feeling the initial relief and excitement from being finished with treatment, your loved one will begin navigating their new normal as a cancer survivor. Survivorship is a very individual thing, but the need for support and understanding is universal.

I don’t know that the statement above needs to be said out loud. Instead, I highly suggest showing your continued support through your actions.

So those are my suggestions for how to “level up” your supportive statements to a loved one with cancer. Again, I’m sure your loved one will appreciate ANY words of kindness you send their direction. Ultimately, my hope with this post was to help you cut through the superficial support and truly touch their heart during a time when it’s needed the most.