Tips on What to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer

Page content

How Does One Cope with Cancer?

Cancer patients go through stages of different emotions after learning that he/she has a disease that may need intensive treatments, may give him a shorter life or may bring sufferings like pain. The earliest emotions may include feelings of shock, disbelief and confusion. After a short time he may try to deny his condition and even refuse to accept the diagnosis and prognosis of the disease. Then when it finally dawns on him that the bad news may be true he may become angry at himself or blame someone else (like the doctor), while others may be seemingly calm and accepting but trying to bargain with the doctor and himself. In this stage one struggles to find possible cure, comfort, healing, hope and faith. Finally, cancer patients may reach a stage of acceptance and resignation, where his spiritual and emotional feelings find reconciliation and peace within himself and with others whom he cares for.

Aside from this whole myriad of emotions which may switch from one stage to another, cancer patients have to cope with the daily challenges of family life, work and other aspects of his life. How then, would a friend, relative or co-worker begin to know what to say to someone who has cancer?

Know Yourself

When one learns that someone he cares for or works with has a terrible disease he/she may somehow feel shocked, uncomfortable, sad or even guilty (about being healthy). One must be honest with himself about these emotions and be able to express these towards the other. He does not need to be ashamed or afraid to show his own feelings because another’s cancer can remind him of his own mortality. Another thing he can do is learn more about the cancer, especially if the patient is close to himself, to be able to know what the patient may be going through. This may be done by asking health professionals and by researching.

Know What to Say

Before saying anything, first try to listen. Allow the patient to express his feelings, his fears and his needs. Allow him to be silent if he chooses not to talk about himself for the moment. One’s physical presence or availability may be enough to reassure a loved one or co-worker that he is not alone in his sufferings.

Knowing what to say is not immediately possible sometimes. But it is important not to be impulsive and forget about respecting the feelings of the cancer patient. Appropriate things to say that may be honest and helpful may be:

  • “I’m not sure of what I should say, but I want you to know that I care.” – Often times this is the most appropriate thing to say which the afflicted person would surely understand
  • “I am sorry to hear that you are going through a difficult time.”
  • “I heard what’s happening, and I’m sorry.”
  • “How are you doing?” – Without being patronizing, ask about his present situation
  • “If you would like to talk about it, I am here.” – Allow him to initiate conversation about his situation
  • “Please let me know how I can help.” – Offer to help with chores or other small responsibilities like bringing kids to school
  • “I’ll keep you in my thoughts/ prayers." – Then send cards, e-mails and small reminders that he is being remembered

It is also important to know that:

  • Good humor sometimes help relieves stress
  • Not talking about cancer or illness all the time is alright, and other topics like work and current events can help them feel normal.
  • Appropriate body language like smiling and hugging can give comfort more than words can sometimes.
  • A family member or friend living with a cancer patient can become overwhelmed by emotions and responsibilities. In these instances cancer help through support groups, counselors and clergy members should be sought.

Know What Not to Say

The following are common mistakes among people who, although may be well-meaning, are often uncomfortable or awkward about starting conversations:

“I know how you feel” or “I know what you’re going through”

“I know someone who had the same cancer and…”

“You look pale” or “You lost a lot of weight”

“Everything’s going to be fine” or “You’re going to be better”

Finally, patients are entitled to mood swings although one does not have to take things personally or put up with disruptive or abusive behavior just because someone is ill. Respecting, affirming and supporting each other is important to take the walk with someone who has a greater burden.


American Cancer Society, “When Someone You Work With Has Cancer”,, “Talking With Someone Who Has Cancer”,