Things to avoid saying

People often worry they will say the wrong thing to someone with cancer. Here are some tips on what to avoid saying.

  • ‘I know you’ll be fine.’ They may feel you don’t understand how serious the situation is. Let them be honest with you about their feelings
  • ‘You are so strong.’ This could make the person feel they have to be brave all the time. Try telling them you understand that they will have good and bad days.
  • ‘You need to think positively.’ People can’t always feel positive. Try to accept what they tell you, even if it’s not all positive.
  • ‘My aunt had cancer.’ Everyone’s experience of cancer is different, so avoid talking about someone else’s.
  • 'You should try this diet I read about online.’ People can be overwhelmed with well-meaning advice. Think carefully about whether it will be helpful before offering advice.
  • ‘It’s great it’s all over.’ Even if treatment is over, they will still need support. Let them know you are still there for them.

What to avoid saying

We know lots of people worry about saying the wrong thing. Understanding what may be unhelpful and why, may make you feel more confident about talking with your relative or friend.

On this page, we’ve included some examples of things people with cancer tell us they don’t find helpful to hear and why. We have also suggested some alternatives.

If you have said one of these things, don’t be hard on yourself. No one gets it right all of the time. The most important thing is you are trying to reach out and help. Don’t let your anxiety about making a mistake make you afraid to offer support. Your relative or friend will appreciate that you are trying to help.

You can find more practical tips from people affected by cancer on The Source.


‘I know you’ll be fine.’

It’s very common for people with cancer to have fears and worries. But it can be hard to hear someone you care about talking about these things. You might want to make them feel better by telling them everything will be okay – but this often doesn’t help.

Saying things like ‘That’s a good cancer to have’ or ‘At least you don’t have to have chemotherapy’ isn’t usually helpful. The person with cancer may feel you don’t understand the seriousness of what they are coping with.

What to do instead: Rather than playing down what someone is facing, listen to your relative or friend and let them speak freely about their feelings.

Don’t keep telling me “You’ll be OK“. I know you want me to, but you don’t know if I will be. Ask “How are things with you right now?“, or say something like “I hope for the best“.

Sharon


‘You are so strong.’

People often say this because they admire how the person with cancer is coping. But it’s not always helpful, as the person may feel under pressure to be brave or strong all the time. They may then feel they can’t admit to feeling down or ask for help when they are not coping so well.

What to say instead: You could tell them you understand they may have good days and bad days, and ask what support you can offer on those days.

People kept telling me how strong I was, probably because of my positive attitude and me putting on a “brave face”. But there were times when I felt anything but strong.

Catherine


'You need to think positively.'

It’s not usually helpful to tell your relative or friend to think positively. No one can feel positive all the time. It’s normal for people to feel scared, angry, upset or down at times, especially when they’re dealing with cancer.

There is no evidence that positive thinking can make treatments more effective or stop cancer from coming back. If you suggest that being positive affects someone’s cancer, they may think they weren’t positive enough and it’s their fault if treatment doesn’t go well.

What to say instead: Ask them how they are feeling and be ready to hear what they tell you, even if it’s not all positive. Being able to express and accept feelings is the first step in coping with them.

When I was diagnosed, lots of my friends and workmates told me to be positive. Sometimes I felt like saying if I don’t want to be positive, I won’t be!

Beverley


‘My aunt had cancer.’

When your relative or friend brings up the subject of their cancer, avoid telling them about someone else’s cancer experience. Each person’s experience is different.

Treat your relative or friend as an individual. Try to focus on them rather than comparing them with anyone else.

What to say instead: You could encourage them to tell you more about the cancer and listen to what they say. That way they will know you are interested in hearing about their experience.

When I was diagnosed, people told me about their mum, dad, aunt or friend who died of cancer. Don’t say this! It’s really frightening and used to make me upset.

Caroline


‘You look really tired.’

Think before making remarks about someone’s appearance. If someone looks tired or has lost weight, they probably know this already. Being told doesn’t help them to feel any better.

What to say instead: It’s generally best not to comment if someone isn’t looking well. Let your relative or friend be the one to mention their appearance if they want to talk about it.

If your relative or friend looks well, and you want to tell them this, you could say something like, ‘You look well, but how are you really feeling?’. This makes it clear you really want to know how they are and that you are not just assuming everything is fine.

My dad was diagnosed last year and every time someone told him he’d lost weight, his face sank. I’m sure he knew he had, but people don’t always realise this.

Cheryl


‘You should try this diet I read about online.’

Think carefully before giving advice, especially about someone’s treatment. You may have your own ideas about what would help your relative or friend. But it’s worth pausing and asking yourself if your idea will really be helpful. You may want to tell them something that you think may help them feel better. But sometimes people facing a cancer diagnosis are overwhelmed with suggestions.

What to say instead: If you want to give advice but are not sure about it, you could say something like, ‘I wondered about this, but I don’t want to suggest it if it’s not the sort of thing you want’.

If you do make a suggestion, be ready to let it go if they don’t seem interested. Remember that your relative or friend may not always accept your advice or help. If they reject your suggestion, don’t take it personally. Their preferences may differ from yours. It could also be one way that they can stay in charge of their life, when other parts of it feel out of control.

It’s up to your relative or friend to make their own decisions about their treatment. Be ready to support their decision, even if it’s not the same one you think you would make.

Let them learn about the cancer at their own pace. I’ve found out lots about the cancer my brother has to understand his progress. But I’m careful not to tell him things unless he asks or tells me first.

Anna


‘If you need anything, just give me a call.’

This is a kind offer to make, but it’s a bit vague. It’s better to make real offers of help.

What to say instead: You could offer to collect the children from school, or drive your relative or friend to the hospital. Making a specific offer saves your friend trying to work out what you might be able to help with. It also shows you really want to help and aren’t just being polite.

We have more ideas on offering practical support.

Something as simple as offering to help clean the house for an hour is really appreciated. Offer help, but make it specific.

Jess


‘It’s great it’s all over.’

Your relative or friend’s treatment may be over but they will still need support.

When cancer treatment comes to an end, try not to assume your relative or friend can put it behind them straight away or feel happy about this. The end of treatment can often be an unexpectedly difficult time. It may be when people start coming to terms with what they have been through emotionally. They may be worried about the cancer coming back and miss the reassurance of regular contact with their cancer team. And they are often still coping with treatment side effects or adjusting to any permanent body changes.

What to do instead: Let your relative or friend know you are still available to listen to them when they want to talk.

People said, “Bet you’re glad that’s over”. After treatment finished, they thought life would go back to how it used to be. But it’s a worrying time and I was doing my best to find normality again.

Michelle

Back to If someone has cancer

Keeping in touch

There are lots of ways you can keep in touch with your loved one.

How to be a good listener

Listening carefully to your relative or friend will give them support and help you understand their needs better.

Looking after yourself

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