7 things to say (and not to say) to someone living with cancer

If someone you care about is diagnosed or living with cancer, we know it’s not always easy to find the right things to say. Acknowledging any challenges they may be experiencing in a compassionate and understanding way can be stressful. People with the best intentions can find themselves triggering or upsetting loved ones.

There are no perfect words. So don’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from saying anything.

Everyone affected by cancer will have their own outlook – but for many, encouraging messages of support, love and hope can mean the world. Discover some of the most caring things to say, inspired by our online community of cancer survivors, thrivers and people who have been there. 

Woman with short grey hair taking to younger woman.

1. Avoid saying: ‘I know how you feel’ | Replace with: ‘I can’t possibly know how you feel, but I’m here to support you’

No two cancer journeys are the same. That’s why, sharing your own personal cancer stories typically aren’t as helpful as you may hope for them to be.

As our community puts it, “Until someone has had cancer, they can’t possibly know how you feel and, even then, what one cancer patient feels will be quite different than what another patient feels.”

With nearly half of Canadians expected to receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, you may have a history with the disease that you feel is worth sharing. But it’s best to ask your loved one about their comfort level hearing your experience. Instead, focus the conversation on their emotions, thoughts, feelings and how you can support them.

2. Avoid saying: ‘Relax’ | Replace with: ‘Waiting is the worst’

For many people who face cancer, one of the most challenging aspects is the waiting period between appointments, testing, pathology reports and treatments. As a member of our community shared, “No one likes being in limbo. The longer you wait, the more time you have to think of what-if scenarios.”

During this time, you may assume that telling a loved one to calm down and relax could help. But as our community knows, this sort of statement is often upsetting, “If you’ve ever been told to relax, did you find that that it made you a little more uptight?”

Instead, as these waiting periods come up, listen and validate your loved one’s concerns and offer them heartfelt sympathy for what they're going through.

3. Avoid saying: ‘Let me know if I can help’ | Replace with: ‘I’m bringing you some pre-prepared meals today’

Offering to help is always a kind gesture. But without a practical task, friends and family may be less involved than they hoped for. As our community knows first-hand, “Many people with cancer feel ghosted by friends and family or let down when offered and promised support doesn't materialize.”

When a friend can follow through on the support they’ve promised, it can mean the world to someone facing cancer. “I found that all the best memories were things that people did, rather than said. Like the old college friend who drove two hours to bring me a big box of really good books.”

During a time when day-to-day tasks may feel overwhelming, help from friends and family can bring comfort and relief.

4. Avoid saying: ‘It’ll be okay’ | Replace with: ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m with you every step of the way’

Try not to trivialize your loved one's experiences by telling them everything will work out. These statements may appear hollow and more for the benefit of the friend, than the person facing cancer.

Instead, focus on how much they mean to you. “After surgery, during chemo and/or radiation, it’s always nice to know that you’re loved regardless of your appearance, your potential outbursts, and lack of physical stamina.”

Reminding your friend that they’re cared for can bring joy and warmth.

Two women talking and laughing. One woman is wearing a head scarf.

5. Avoid saying: ‘Stay positive’ | Replace with: ‘Let me help you seek out the positive’

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, there’s often pressure on them to stay positive. But this isn’t always possible during treatments, appointments, pain and any other new challenges that may arise from a diagnosis. And as members of our community have expressed, “negativity didn't cause my cancer, so how can being positive cure it?”

A better approach may be helping your loved one seek out the positive and find joy in their life. Try to make them laugh or do something that feels good like enjoying the company of a pet. Help them find things that can improve their quality of life, all while understanding there are good days and bad days. Not every day can be focused on finding joy. 

6. Avoid saying: ‘You can fight this battle!’ | Replace with: ‘I hope you're back doing the things you love soon.’

Many people living with cancer have expressed that ‘fight’, “battle’ and ‘warrior’ language can put too much emphasis on either winning or losing a cancer journey. And as one community member puts it, “It also assigns a lot of responsibility and accountability to cancer patients with the view that maybe they didn’t try hard enough, weren’t committed enough or weren’t of the right character.”

We know that cancer can change a lot of things. But as we’ve heard directly from those we serve, it doesn’t have to define a person.

Our words have power. So instead of talking to a loved one about winning the cancer battle, focus on the person, the things they love to do and hope for the future. “I'm a writer who happens to have had cancer, not a cancer patient who happens to write.” This can be a powerful shift to help your loved one take control of cancer and live their life to the fullest.  

7. Avoid: over-sharing about your own life | Replace with: listening and saying nothing at all

Catching up with friends and family can bring great comfort. But hearing about complaints or seemingly minor difficulties can trigger confusing emotions for someone who may feel overwhelmed.

As one community member put it, “I get seriously annoyed by people who call up ostensibly to see how I’m doing, and then spend half an hour telling me about their knee or back problems. Sorry, but I think stage 4 lung cancer trumps a bad knee!”

If you don’t know what to say, just let them lead. We know it may feel uncomfortable, but instead of talking to the point of over-sharing, sometimes the right words are no words at all. Sitting in silence while holding a loved one’s hand – if they’re comfortable and feel safe doing so – can be a compassionate way to show you understand what they’re going through.  

Cancer can change everything, including your personal comfort level connecting with loved ones facing the disease. While nobody wants to say the wrong thing, it does happen. Acknowledging that you’ve made mistakes and owning up to them with an apology can go a long way in rebuilding the relationship. And above all, sharing genuine words that come from the heart can make the biggest difference in supporting your friend, family member, colleague or community member facing cancer.

Looking for more information about being there for someone with cancer? Our Listen First brochure offers a list of ideas to support your loved one.