What to Say When Someone Is Diagnosed With Cancer

It can be hard to know what to say when someone is diagnosed with cancer. In addition to not fully understanding how they feel and what they might find helpful (or not), you may be dealing with your own shock, worry, or sadness about the news.

Centering your approach around acknowledging their diagnosis, expressing empathy, and offering support can help guide you.

This article explains what to say to someone who has cancer. It provides sample phrases and concrete ways to support a friend or loved one with a recent diagnosis. It also offers tips on things not to say.

Two men having a serious chat over coffee
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What to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer

The best advice in this situation is to say how you feel. For example, if you are thinking about them, care about them, or feel sorry they are going through this, then say so. Don’t know what to say? Then say that.

Here are a few more conversation starters:

  • I am here if you want to talk.
  • I would like to help in any way I can.
  • Are you up for having visitors?
  • Is there anyone else you would like me to contact?
  • This must be a hard thing to go through.

Sometimes a simple question from a trusted friend or family member can open the floodgates. If the person gets angry, let them vent. If they tell you they're afraid, give them a prompt to open up further:

  • What are you most afraid of?
  • What can I do to help with your fears?

These conversations can be uncomfortable or feel hard to manage. However, simply giving the person the time and safe space to process their thoughts and feelings can be a big help. Just respond with empathy and let them do the talking.

What Not to Say to Someone With Cancer

Sometimes it can be easier to know the right things to say than what not to say. Don't get too caught up in that. Try to have a natural conversation and speak from the heart.

If you are especially concerned about missteps that could turn the conversation in a direction you didn't intend to, try to keep the following tips in mind:

  • Don’t make it about you or compare it to "something similar" you have been through.
  • If they don’t want to talk, don’t force the issue. Just let them know that you are available when and if they want to.
  • Don’t try to find the positives. There isn’t much of a silver lining to a blood cancer diagnosis, so avoid saying things like, “It could be worse,” or, "At least it isn’t...” For the person with the disease, this probably is the worst-case scenario.
  • Don’t express overly pessimistic opinions.
  • Avoid saying things that minimize what the person is going through such as “Don’t worry,” “Everything is going to be OK” or “Cheer up.”
  • Do not in any way imply the person caused or could have prevented their disease. Nobody deserves to get cancer. Even if you believe that the person’s lifestyle choices contributed to their disease, keep it to yourself.

Take Cues

How a person feels about their diagnosis and whether or not their disease is stable should help direct you as to what to say with someone with cancer. And your approach will undoubtedly change over time.

Maybe they are at a point where their diagnosis is all they want to talk about, or maybe they don’t want to talk about it at all. Maybe they just got the news, or maybe their care team has outlined the treatment path ahead.

Listen to them—what they are saying, what they are not, and how much or how little they are talking. Read their body language. Then, respond accordingly. If you don't feel like you have a good enough read after doing so, consider asking someone who might be closer to them, such as a parent or spouse, for guidance.

One thing to know is that when it comes to dealing with a stressful diagnosis such as cancer, expect the unexpected.

Sometimes the most surprising thing about a cancer diagnosis is how the patient handles it. They may show unbelievable strength you never knew they had or be more vulnerable than you knew.

They might show a number of different emotions—sadness, anger, guilt, fear, ambivalence, avoidance. Sometimes they may show all of them at once or change from moment to moment.

The way a person reacts to any situation is shaped by all of their experiences from their past, which is part of what leads to such a variety of ways that people manage and cope with events.


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Whatever You Say, Say Something

Sometimes not knowing what to say with someone with cancer can put so much pressure on you that you end up saying nothing at all.

What if your loved one starts to cry? What if they ask you something you don’t know the answer to? What if they get mad at you? What if you make them feel worse?

You might even feel that the person already knows that you care, so you don't need to say so.

The truth is, cancer is the elephant in the room. To not acknowledge can be almost more hurtful than anything you may say.

There is no shame in saying that things may not be coming out the way you want or that you've never had to have a conversation like this before and are unsure how to handle it. What's important is that you recognize their diagnosis and show them that you're trying.

How to Handle Hospital Visits

If you plan on visiting someone with cancer in the hospital, there are a few things you should consider:

  • Call ahead. There is a possibility that visitors may not be accepted. If they are, find out the visiting hours of the nursing unit. Expect that you may not be able to visit until late morning or after early evening; there is often a rest period during the afternoon.
  • Expect to keep your visit short. Stay for no more than 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Blood cancer patients in particular experience a great deal of fatigue, which is made worse by a recent diagnosis. If they ask you to stay longer, then stay longer, but make sure you don’t tire them out.
  • Stay away if you are not feeling well. People with these types of cancers often have a weakened immune system at the time of their diagnosis. Exposure to a virus or bacteria can lead to a very serious illness. Even if you aren’t sick, make sure you wash your hands very thoroughly when you enter the hospital room and when you leave. Wearing a mask is also a good idea.
  • If you want to bring gifts, use your judgment. Plants and flowers can liven up a dull hospital room, but due to immunity concerns, it may not be appropriate to bring them into some patients' rooms. Check with the nursing unit or a family member to see if it’s OK before you visit.

Hospital visits are not mandatory cancer diagnosis "etiquette," if there is such a thing. Many people have a deep aversion to hospitals, and if you identify with this, know that there are many other ways you can show how much you care.

Make sure your conversation is focused on the patient, not your issues. That is unless the person explicitly asks to talk about things in your life. Sometimes another person's story is a good distraction. Just try to keep things light and entertaining.

How You Can Help Someone With Cancer

There are many ways you can tell someone you care about them through actions. The great thing about caring actions is that you feel like you have helped to carry some of the weight of your loved one's burden.

Even the most minor task can be more appreciated than you know. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

  • Actively listen to the person when they are speaking and encourage them to continue if you sense they want or need to.
  • Send a card to let them know you are thinking about them.
  • Donate blood in their honor. Most people with blood cancer will need a blood transfusion at some point during their treatment.
  • Learn more about whether or not becoming a bone marrow donor would be right for you.
  • Learn more about the other diagnosis given to your loved one.
  • Offer to care for their pets or children.
  • Mow their lawn or shovel their sidewalk.
  • Prepare some meals for their fridge or freezer. Provide them with paper plates so they don’t need to worry about cleaning up.
  • Run errands for them.
  • Offer to do some of their household chores such as washing the dishes, vacuuming, or doing laundry. Consider a gift certificate for a cleaning service.
  • Offer to provide transportation to appointments.
  • Prepare a chemo care package they can bring with them for appointments or treatments.
  • Bring a movie, book, or music for them to enjoy while in the hospital. If they have access to a smartphone or tablet, consider gifting a subscription to a streaming service.

Key Takeaways

  • Think before you speak.
  • Allow the person to talk without interruption.
  • Make them the focus of the conversation.
  • Pay attention to cues about how much or how little they wish to talk about their diagnosis.
  • Express care and compassion.
  • Ask before visiting and keep talks short so they don't get too fatigued.
1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Klikovac T, Djurdjevic A. Psychological aspects of the cancer patients' education: thoughts, feelings, behavior and body reactions of patients faced with diagnosis of cancer. J BUON. 2010;15(1):153-6.

Additional Reading

By Karen Raymaakers
Karen Raymaakers RN, CON(C) is a certified oncology nurse that has worked with leukemia and lymphoma patients for over a decade.