Finding the Right Words: What to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer

If a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, it can be challenging to know what to say or how to approach a conversation with them. Similarly, a cancer patient attending a social gathering might be nervous about what people will say to you and how you might react. The worst thing to do is to avoid talking to the person with cancer, as this can make them feel isolated and alone. So please reach out, even if you are nervous about doing so.

Every person is different, and you know your loved one best, but here are some tips you might find helpful to keep in mind when talking to someone who has or did have cancer:

Phrases to avoid

  • Are you alright now? – asking if the cancer has gone, which no one can guarantee.
  • You look well.
  • Have you finished treatment? – This is a big question because until you are five years clear of cancer, the hospital keeps you under surveillance and you may need treatment at any time.
  • Don’t worry, everything will be okay. – We don’t know if it will be okay, and this phrase can leave the person with cancer feeling a bit distressed.
  • Talking about other people’s cancer stories.
  • Be careful when using humour or jokes.

Ways to express support

  • Express genuine care and concern for the person –  “You have a lot going on right now, and I’m here for you.”
  • Offer an invitation to support them. – “I’m here if you want to talk.”
  • Instead of telling someone with cancer it will be okay, say something like – “It’s amazing how strong you are; what can I do to help?”
  • Let them talk; sometimes, they will talk about everything apart from the cancer, but that’s okay.
  • Show empathy if they get upset or start to cry; say something like, “I can see how upsetting this is for you”, and wait until they have finished crying before you hug them or hold their hand.


Another important element of the conversation is making time, as once the person with cancer opens up, they may talk in some depth about what has happened to them. Talking about feelings and difficult events can be tiring, so take some time for yourself after the conversation or suggest you both go and do something nice together.


Real listening is key to making the person with cancer feel heard. Focus on what they are saying without interrupting or thinking about what you have to say next. Put your phone away and sit in a quiet space, if you can, with limited distractions. Repeating key phrases that they have said back to them reassures the person talking that you are taking in the information and helps you to concentrate.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, you may be apprehensive about reaching out to them and knowing what to say. Remember to actively listen, give them time, and offer an invitation of support rather than giving your opinion on the situation. But please do reach out, as your loved one with cancer always appreciates hearing from you.


Written by Victoria Walsh

Cancer Coach 

Instagram: vicversuscancer

Victoria Walsh

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