What to say to someone who has cancer

You may feel unsure about what to say to someone with cancer. We have advice to help you make talking and listening easier and deal with difficulties.

Tips for talking to someone with cancer

It is natural for someone with cancer to have many feelings, such as fear, anger or frustration. Over time, the person usually finds ways to manage these feelings. Talking to other people can help with this. You can support the person with cancer by listening and talking with them. This is sometimes hard, but there are things you can do to make it easier:

  • Choose a time and place when you will be able to talk without being interrupted. Do not try to talk when one of you is busy or tired.
  • Let them talk when they are ready. Do not feel you have to talk about the cancer.
  • Do not feel you need to have answers. Listening can be enough. Even if it goes quiet for a time, try not to be afraid of the silence or feel you have to fill it.
  • Set a limit on how long you will talk for. Talking about feelings can be tiring. You could plan to do something nice together afterwards.
  • Try to listen instead of thinking about what you are going to say next. When the person with cancer is talking, pay attention to what they are saying.
  • Respect the other person’s feelings. They might want to talk about things you find hard to hear.
  • Try not to say that everything will be fine or encourage them to be positive. It can sound as if you are not listening to their worries. It is better to let people speak honestly about their feelings.
  • Repeat back what you have heard. This helps you check you have got it right and shows you are listening. You might say things like, ‘So you mean that…?’. You may find your own way of saying this, especially if you know each other very well.
  • It may not be helpful to tell the person about other people’s stories. You may have heard about other people’s experiences with cancer. Cancer is different for everyone. They will get the information they need from their healthcare team.
  • Try to avoid humour or jokes if they are talking about feeling sad or worried. Sometimes it can help, but it may make things difficult.
  • Showing empathy is helpful. If they start to cry as they talk, you could say something like, ‘I can see how upsetting that is for you’. If you are close to them, you could simply sit with them and hold their hand.

Booklets and resources

Listening to someone

Listening is just as important as talking. We all like to feel we have been heard, especially when talking about something serious.

You may feel unsure about how to comfort the person you care for. But just listening to them when they want to talk can make a real difference. You do not need to have all the answers. Listening can be enough.

Listening and talking can help you both understand what the other person is feeling.

Dealing with difficulties

When you are supporting someone with cancer, you may both feel stressed. You may be angry or upset about the cancer, but this can be hard to say. People might say how they feel by getting angry or upset with the people closest to them. You may argue or find it hard to talk to each other.

There are things you can do to help manage this:

  • Try to understand each other’s feelings.
  • Ask the other person what they think or how they feel. It might be different to what you thought.
  • Let each other talk, even if you disagree with what the other person is saying.
  • Avoid words like ‘never’ and ‘always’. For example, do not say, ‘You never listen to me,’ or ‘I always call you’. These words can make the other person defensive.
  • Talk to the other person about how what they do makes you feel. Instead of saying, ‘You are thoughtless – I have to remember everything,’ try saying, ‘I feel stressed when I have a lot to remember’.
  • Write down your feelings. This can help you think about what is important to you and help you deal with some of your worries.

Not talking

It is also important to have conversations about things other than cancer. There will be times when you prefer to talk about day-to-day subjects such as friends, sport or TV. Or sometimes you may just want to sit quietly together. It is okay not to talk all the time.

There may be times when you want to talk but the other person does not. When this happens, talking to family members or friends may help you feel supported. It is good to have support from other people as well as from each other. Macmillan is also here to support you. If you want to talk, you can:

We have more information about how to talk about your feelings and getting the support you need.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 31 January 2019
Next review: 31 July 2021

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

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