It’s tough to know how to act or respond when someone close to you has cancer. Sometimes, people end up saying nothing because they’re unsure.
Every bond is unique, so there’s no exact rule for talking with someone who has cancer. However, there are things you can do to make conversations easier and show that you care and support them.
Understand Your Own Feelings First
Learning about a loved one’s cancer diagnosis can be very upsetting and shocking. You might hear this news directly from them, or from someone else. In any case, it’s crucial to allow yourself some time to understand and accept your feelings.
Remember, there will be instances when your loved one might not want to discuss their illness. During these times, it could be helpful to spend some time learning about their specific condition.
You could do this by speaking with other family members or by doing some research on your own.
Follow the Lead of the Person Diagnosed with Cancer
Regardless of the type or stage of cancer and no matter what your relationship is with the person who has cancer, it’s helpful to start by observing and listening.
Pay close attention to the person with cancer. Notice their words and non-verbal signals to understand whether they have energy that day, want to converse or prefer silence, and if they are feeling positive or scared.
Create a Safe Space for Open Communication
If you wish to support someone with cancer, it’s important to be open to hearing and supporting a wide variety of feelings, even those that may surprise you.
People with cancer go through a whole range of emotions. It can be tough when they aren’t allowed to express every emotion. Often, what they appreciate is someone who’s okay just being there, even in emotional times.
It’s not unusual for people with cancer to feel anger, worry, sadness, guilt, and loneliness, but it’s also perfectly okay to experience gratitude, hope, and joy. In fact, it’s possible to go through all these feelings in one day or even feel contrasting emotions at the same time.
Depending on your relationship, the time, and the place, it might be fitting to just say what you see. You could say, “I can see you’re scared,” which allows for sharing of worries or vulnerability.
And you can also make room for lighter moments – when they say, “I just want to watch a movie tonight,” for example.
Be Mindful of Your Words
Understand how challenging this time is for the person. Picking the right words can help you convey your support without seeming dismissive or avoiding the issue. For instance, it’s better to say, “I don’t know what to say” than to stop contacting or visiting because of fear.
Here are some phrases that can show you care and are supportive:
- I’m really sorry you’re going through this.
- I’m here for you if you ever want to talk.
- What are your plans, and how can I assist?
- I truly care about you.
- You’re in my thoughts.
Here are examples of things that are not helpful to say:
- I completely understand how you feel.
- I know exactly what you should do.
- I know someone else who had the exact same diagnosis.
- You’ll be totally fine.
- Don’t worry about it.
- How much time do you have left?
Seek Consent Before Giving Advice or Sharing Stories
It’s normal to want to share a story or a resource that you think might help the person feel better. But, it’s important to first check if they are in the right frame of mind for it.
It’s particularly crucial to ask for permission if you intend to provide something that could be taken as advice.
Saying something like, “I came across a great article recently. Would you mind if I share it with you?”
People diagnosed with cancer often receive a lot of well-intended advice, information, and personal stories, so it’s crucial to ask before adding more—especially if you’re communicating on social media.
A recent study involving 30 women with breast cancer and over 21,000 Facebook posts found that most posts were emotionally supportive. However, social media can also be a medium for sharing unwanted, unreliable, or unhelpful advice.
If you do share advice, ensure it’s from a trustworthy source.
Don’t Necessarily Expect a Reply
People with cancer often feel overloaded both by the support they receive and the pressure to respond to those offering support. If you’ve been given the green light to call, text, or email someone, don’t expect a response as quickly as usual.
In fact, it could be thoughtful to let them know they don’t need to respond right away, or at all. You could say something like, “You don’t have to reply. Just wanted to send you some love.”
Be Considerate When Offering Help
If you wish to provide practical help or send a gift, try to be specific in your offer.
If you’re unsure about what to do or give, use your skills. If you’re good at knitting, cooking, or creating great playlists—go with what you excel at.
Another idea? If you know the person well, choose a gift or offer something that you know they would like. Ask yourself, “What does they love?”
The American Cancer Society recommends helping with regular errands or tasks as a practical way to support—like mowing the lawn or driving kids to and from their activities. However, it’s important to discuss these tasks beforehand to ensure that you’re offering the help that’s truly desired.
Refrain from Sharing Your Own Feelings and Concerns with the Person with Cancer
If you have a close, longstanding relationship with the person diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural that their diagnosis and treatment will affect you. You might feel anxious, guilty, sad, or even angry. You may have numerous important questions. In this situation, it’s crucial that you seek support elsewhere.
In terms of how much of your own fear or feelings to share with the person with cancer, following the ‘ring theory,’ a concept first described by psychologist Susan Silk and mediator Barry Goldman.
“Imagine a series of expanding circles. The person with cancer is at the center”
“In the next larger circle, you have the significant other or perhaps the parent of the person with cancer. After that, family members. Then, close friends.” The larger the circle, the more emotional distance there is between the person with cancer and the individuals in the outer circles.
The basic rule is, “comfort inwards and vent outwards.” Whichever circle you are in, offer comfort to those closer to the center.
When you need to express your own feelings, Silk and Goldman suggest that you should vent to people in your circle or those further away from the person with cancer.
Support Their Continued Involvement in Regular Activities
Assist your friend or family member in figuring out how to maintain their usual activities and routines. Sticking to familiar routines often helps individuals with cancer manage during a period filled with many new experiences.
However, due to the demands or energy drain from cancer or its treatment, some people might be unable to continue with their regular activities and routines.
You might be able to help your friend or family member prioritize the activities they want to do and allocate other tasks. For instance, you can suggest that your friend or family member reserve energy for attending their child’s soccer game or school play, while rallying volunteers to assist with household tasks.
The Key Takeaway
When someone you know has cancer—whether they’ve just been diagnosed, they’re undergoing treatment, or they’re on the path to recovery—it can be tough to know what to say. The best approach is to start by listening, both to their spoken words and their unspoken signals about what they need at the moment.
You can create a welcoming environment for them to discuss their day-to-day feelings and challenges, and you can talk about specific and practical ways to help. If you wish to share experiences or provide advice, always ask for permission first, as unsolicited advice might not be helpful.
If you’re dealing with your own mix of emotions, find a safe place to address how your friend’s cancer diagnosis is affecting you. Just remember that the person with cancer might not be able to help you with those feelings right now.
And if you end up saying something you later regret—which everyone does now and then—it’s perfectly fine to apologize and start over. If there’s one thing cancer makes evident, it’s that we are all human.