Talking and listening

When life is difficult for a partner, relative or friend, talking and listening can help them make sense of their experiences. How you go about this is important. Body language, such as smiling and touching, can often show as much support as words.

An open discussion and the chance to ask questions can be good for both of you. It often helps to talk face-to-face first. Sending text messages, emails or talking on the phone can also be effective – especially if a person is feeling tired or unwell. Ask how they would prefer to communicate.

Sometimes talking is hard. A person with cancer may feel shocked or scared, or be in denial. They may want to avoid upsetting themselves or their family by talking about their illness. Usually, the opposite is true – talking stops these feelings growing bigger. Giving someone the attention and space to express their feelings and concerns can show you accept and understand them.

Talking and listening to someone with cancer

Being told that someone you care about has cancer is often a big shock. You may want to help but you don’t know how. You may think that there are things you should say or do that will make things easier for the person with cancer – if only you knew what they were.

You may have thoughts such as, ‘What if I say the wrong thing?’, ‘How do I talk to her?’ and ‘I don’t want to hurt him.’ Many people feel like this, even if they’re used to dealing with difficult issues.

This section offers ideas for how to talk about cancer and be a good listener, and practical ways to help your relative or friend.

If you have cancer yourself, visit our section on talking about your cancer.

How we communicate

Talking and listening are two of the main ways that we communicate with each other. How you talk is just as important as the words you use. The way you speak can show warmth and concern, as can a smile, a glance or a touch.

Body language

As well as talking and listening, we communicate with each other through body language. This includes smiling, touching, kissing, frowning and maybe just being together without feeling the need to talk. If a person close to you is upset, they may not be able to take in much of what you say, but they may still value your support.


Text, email and social media websites are now common ways of communicating for many people. They allow small bits of information to be shared at a time, sometimes 24 hours a day. They can be very effective, especially if the person you’re supporting feels tired or unwell. Or if they aren’t up to seeing you or having a long phone conversation.

A text message or email may lack the togetherness of talking face-to-face, and some people also find that the responsibility to respond can be a burden. You could ask if the person you’re supporting is happy to be sent text messages and emails, or whether they’d prefer you communicate with them in some other way.

Talking face-to-face

This is often the most efficient and personal way we have of communicating. Although other ways are important, it often helps to talk first. Having discussions and being able to ask questions are often the best ways of making any communication clear between people.

When life is hard, we often talk about what’s bothering us in an attempt to ‘get it off our chest’. This releases some of the stress so we feel better. Finding the words to describe experiences and feelings can help make sense of them and bring them into perspective. Talking can be a huge relief.

Not talking

If a person doesn’t have anyone to talk to, they are more likely to be anxious and depressed. Studies tell us that families that openly express their feelings show lower levels of depression. And families that communicate directly about the illness are less anxious.

People who are seriously ill may find that other people won’t talk to them so they feel isolated. This may make them feel even worse. There are a number of reasons why a person may not want to talk to someone who is seriously ill. They may be worried that if they talk to their relative, friend or loved one about the cancer or its treatment, they will increase their distress. But in practice this doesn’t happen often. Conversations between people who are ill and their relatives and friends usually don’t create new fears and anxieties. In fact, the opposite is often true: not talking about a fear can make it bigger.

It can be hard to talk about how you feel. One reason for this can be a feeling of shame. A person may be ashamed of their reaction to their illness – they may be afraid or sad and cry as a result of these feelings. They may feel that they have somehow caused their cancer even though this isn’t so. They may be afraid but feel that they shouldn’t be.


You can help your relative or friend by listening to their concerns. By not changing the subject and allowing them to express their feelings, you show that you accept and understand them. This will help them feel better rather than worse. A lot can be gained from talking with and listening to someone who has cancer. However, starting a conversation can feel awkward and embarrassing, maybe even frightening. There are ways of overcoming these difficulties though.

Barriers to good communication about cancer

There are several barriers that may block communication between you and the person who is ill.

The person who is ill:

  • may feel overwhelmed and stunned by the news of their diagnosis and find it difficult to talk
  • may be in denial, meaning they’re not accepting their diagnosis
  • may be afraid of hearing more bad news
  • may want to avoid becoming upset by thinking about their illness
  • may not want to cause their family and friends distress
  • may take a stiff upper lip approach to their illness by being strong and not complaining
  • may feel angry or depressed at having cancer, so they just want to be alone
  • may be too ill to talk much.


  • may be afraid of causing distress
  • may not know what to say
  • may feel overwhelmed that someone close to you has cancer
  • may be unable to think clearly and find words of support.

These may seem like major hurdles. However, there are ways of listening and talking that can help you work out whether your relative or friend needs or wants to talk.

Back to If someone has cancer

How to talk

If your friend or relative has cancer, talking openly will help you understand their experience and build mutual trust.

Looking after yourself

Supporting a person with cancer can be both rewarding and demanding. Make sure you have the support you need.