Do’s and Don’ts – Talking to a Cancer Patient

What do you say when a friend or someone that you love has been diagnosed with cancer? You want to be there for them and comfort them but you also want to make sure that you’re not saying something that’s going to upset them or make them feel even worse than they already do. Well, I am here to help.  How do I know? Welcome to Life as a Cancer Survivor.  My name is Jelena and at age 34 I was diagnosed with stage 3 rectal cancer. Throughout my time as a survivor, I have immersed myself in the cancer world and made tons of friends within that along the way. Throughout our journeys, we vent or share some of the best and worst things to say to a cancer patient, so I’ve compiled a lot of those together for this video. So let’s get started with the good stuff, things to say.

Things to say to a cancer patient

I love you.

When it’s a loved one that’s telling you their diagnosis it’s always good to start out with and “I love you” as a comforting reminder that they aren’t alone in this. 

I’m sorry that you have to go through this.

This acknowledges that you realize that what they’re going through is very difficult. I’m here to listen.  Telling them that you’re there to listen shows them that you care for them and that the focus of the conversation will stay on them and not on you when they need to talk. A person goes through tons of emotions when they’re diagnosed with cancer and those emotions can change from one minute to the next so letting them know that you’re there to listen gives them another person that they know that they can turn to if they need to talk.  

Can I bring you dinner tomorrow?

Or any specific thing that you want to do to help. It doesn’t have to be tomorrow but give them an exact date. If that date doesn’t work then the patient can offer an alternative right there for you. And it doesn’t have to be dinner either it could be groceries, snacks, tea, coffee, offering to walk the dog, or babysit. They’re overwhelmed with so many things that it’s easier for them to just say yes or offer a quick alternative rather than leaving an open-ended date for something.

Would you like for me to take you to any of your appointments?

Even if they have a significant other, that other person may not be able to take time off of work to accompany them to every single appointment because there’s going to be a ton of them.  A lot of information is covered in those appointments so it’s always helpful to have a second person there to help with remembering all that information. Sometimes these appointments can get emotional too and it’s nice to just have another person there with you that can help to comfort you that’s not your doctor.

I’m thinking about you.

This one is good once treatment is started just to let them know that you haven’t forgotten about them.

Would you like to come to. . .?

Don’t assume that they aren’t up for anything social. Keep inviting them to things and let them determine whether or not they feel well enough or have enough energy to accompany you to those things. Not inviting them makes them feel like you’re abandoning them and that you’re not there for them at a time when they really need friends and support.


Now for some things not to say.  Don’t fret if you’ve sent any of them because  I’m guilty of having said a few of them as well.  A lot of these, they’re said with the best of intentions but I’ll explain why they may not be the best things to say to a patient.  

What NOT to say to a cancer patient

At least.

It minimizes what they’re experiencing and feeling. You can almost always find someone that has it worse but that doesn’t mean that others that are struggling aren’t having a hard time too.

Let me know if you need anything.

They are so overwhelmed that they have no idea what they need and once they do realize that they’re in need of some stuff they don’t have the time or the energy to try to figure out who could do what for them. Take a note from my “What to say” section and tell them that you’re bringing them dinner on Thursday.  

You’ll be fine.

You have no idea what their prognosis is and even if you do every person is different and you have no idea which side of the statistics that this person is going to fall into.  

Don’t worry. It’s no big deal. It could be worse.

A cancer diagnosis is a big deal, even if it’s caught early and can easily be treated. They’ll have this cloud of cancer following them around for the rest of their lives. Saying one of these is similar to giving the “At least…” line, which minimizes what they’re feeling and can make them feel even worse for having any kind of emotion about this.  

My aunt’s neighbor had the same kind of cancer and they died.

This obviously doesn’t help at all other than to increase their anxiety about their diagnosis. Even if you’re bringing this up to try and compare treatment plans it’s not helpful. Our minds already think the worst when we hear that we’ve been diagnosed with cancer we don’t need to hear about other people that have died from it. Plus, you’re stealing the conversation by focusing everything on you and your story. 

Everything happens for a reason.

A cancer patient doesn’t want to hear that maybe there’s some dark,  behind the scenes reason that they got cancer. Just say, “I’m sorry this happened to you,” and move on.

Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and be dead.

You don’t worry every day that the bus is going to hit you and you’re going to die. You don’t have nightmares about the bus hitting you and killing you.  And you don’t go to bed worrying about whether or not that bus is chasing you. Cancer is always looming over our heads.  The bus is not.

It’s the “good” kind of cancer.

There is no good kind of cancer.  They all suck in their own way.  Saying that they have the “good” kind is again like saying, “at least,” don’t say it.

You should. . .

Are you an oncologist? Then you have no business giving them any kind of medical advice. Don’t tell them they should be doing this or they should be feeling this. We’re all different. We all handle treatment a little different, recover different, our emotions are different, so it’s up to us to figure out what’s best for ourselves. Unless we’ve asked you for advice, please don’t give any.  

They lost their battle.

When a person dies from cancer, please do not say that they lost their battle. They tried their hardest to beat their cancer and saying that they lost implies that they’re a loser and they gave up.  If it was solely up to a person’s will there would be a heck of a lot more people that would be beating cancer but that’s not how it works. Also, the cancer dies with the person so it’s a tie at best.

List of what to say and what to say to a cancer patient

This is by no means an exhaustive list but hopefully, it gives you a good starting point of some good things to say and to avoid saying. Want a printable version of this list? Click here to download this handy infographic to use and to share.  

Let me know down in the comments below if there are any really important ones that I’ve missed.  Want to hear what it’s like to be on the receiving end of getting a cancer diagnosis?  Click here to read about my diagnosis story. Thanks for watching.

Click here to download a printable version of Talking to a Cancer Patient.

*This video was originally published on January 8, 2021

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