How to talk

Knowing how to talk to your friend or loved one about cancer isn’t always easy. These tips may help:

  • Don’t be afraid to say how you feel. Being honest will help you build mutual trust.
  • Check you understand what they are saying. If you’re unsure what someone means or how they feel, just ask.
  • Stay with the subject. Remember, each person’s experience of cancer is different.
  • Give advice carefully. Sometimes just listening and asking if there’s anything you can do to help is the best approach. Pause to consider how helpful your advice will be.
  • Use humour if it’s appropriate. Laughter can sometimes be healthy in difficult situations. Try to join in if your friend or relative wants to laugh about their experiences sometimes.
  • Allow your relative or friend to be sad or upset. No-one can be positive all the time. And crying often helps to relieve tension. Acknowledge how difficult their situation must be.

If the person's feelings are particularly intense, support from a trained counsellor, support group or hospital chaplain may be helpful. GP or hospital staff can offer advice on these services.

Saying how you feel when someone has cancer

Being honest about your feelings will help develop trust between you, and it’ll make it easier for the other person to be honest about their own feelings. It may be helpful to say things like,

  • 'I find this difficult to talk about...'
  • 'I'm not very good at talking about...'
  • ‘I don’t know what to say.'

You may worry that saying things like this will cause your loved one or friend further distress. However, in practice it tends to have the opposite effect, and the person you're talking to may be relieved that someone understands. It’s quite possible that the person you’re talking to feels the same as you. Even if you share the same feelings, remember not to stay focused on your own feelings. Make sure that you bring your attention back to your relative or friend.

Checking you understand

If you’re sure that you understand what your relative or friend means, you can say something like,

  • ‘You sound very low’ or
  • ‘I imagine that must have made you very angry’

This tells them that you’ve picked up on the emotions they’ve expressed while talking to you.

But if you’re not sure what they mean, you can ask,

  • ‘What did that feel like?’
  • ‘Do you mean that …?’ or
  • ‘How do you feel now?’

Misunderstandings can occur if you assume that you know how they’re feeling. To help make sure that there are no misunderstandings you could say something like,

  • ‘Can you say a bit more about what you mean?’ or
  • ‘I’m not sure that I know how you feel/what you mean.’

Staying with the subject

If your relative or friend wants to talk about how awful they feel, it’s important to let them. It may be distressing for you to hear some of the things they say. However, it can really help them if you’re able to stay with them and just listen while they talk. If you find it uncomfortable and too difficult to cope with just then, you could suggest a short break for a cup of tea or you could take a quick look around the room while you compose yourself. This will help move your attention away from what is distressing you.

If after a short break you still find that the conversation is too hard for you, you could say so and offer to discuss it later. Say something simple, such as, ’I’m feeling a bit emotional and it’s hard for me to talk about this now – could we talk about it later?‘

Don’t simply change the subject without acknowledging the fact that what your relative or friend is talking about is very important. When your relative or friend brings up the subject of their cancer, don’t immediately start talking about someone else you know who has, or has had, cancer. You may mean well, but remember that each person’s experience of cancer will be different, so talking about someone else’s experience may not be helpful. Treat your relative or friend as an individual and focus on them rather than comparing them with others who have cancer.

Giving advice to a person with cancer

You may want to give advice to your relative or friend. You may want to tell them something that may help them feel better. But it’s probably more helpful to simply listen for as long as they wish to talk and then ask if there’s anything you can do to help them. You may be surprised at their answer, as they may come up with something unexpected.

You may have your own ideas, but it’s worth pausing and asking yourself if your idea will really be helpful. If you’re not sure, you could suggest something like, ‘I wondered about …, but I don’t want to suggest this if it’s not the sort of thing you want.’

Remember that your relative or friend may not accept your advice. 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.

Using humour

You may imagine that there can’t possibly be anything to laugh about if someone has a major illness such as cancer. But humour can help us deal with difficult things. Laughter can help to relieve emotional tension. Laughing at what feels threatening is a way of bringing it down to size, gaining perspective and helping people feel more in control and able to deal with their situation. It may also help the person feel like their normal self.

If your relative or friend wants to tell jokes and laugh about things that have happened to them during their illness, remember that humour can be a healthy response to their situation. It will help them if you go along with it, even if you find it difficult.

Being positive about cancer

It’s quite natural for people to feel frightened, upset and sad when they've been diagnosed with cancer or are having treatment. Some people think that being positive can help cure cancer or make the treatment more successful. They may worry that feeling sad and having negative thoughts or emotions may make the treatment less successful, make the cancer grow faster or make it more likely to come back.

Although the development of cancer may be influenced by our thoughts, feelings and attitudes, research studies haven’t shown any convincing evidence that positive thinking can make treatments more effective or stop the cancer from coming back. It's also important to remember that cancer is influenced by many other things, such as our environment, smoking habits, diet and genetic make-up. No one can feel positive all the time - it’s all right to have times when you feel negative. If you believe that your relative or friend needs to be positive to get rid of the cancer and the cancer comes back, they may think that it’s their fault because they weren't positive enough. If a cancer does come back or can’t be cured, it’s often beyond their control. Cancer is a complicated illness, and even with modern treatments, not all cancers can be cured.

Allowing for emotions

It’s important to allow your relative or friend to be sad or upset at times. You may find that they want to talk about difficult topics, such as the chances of being cured, whether it’s worth having another course of treatment or making a will.

You may want to say things like, ‘Oh, don’t worry it will all be OK.’ or ‘Of course the cancer won’t come back; try to be positive.’ This is understandable, but it may make them feel that you don’t want to talk about their feelings. They could then end up feeling isolated and saying nothing. It may help to say something like,

  • ‘I can understand you feeling low with the chemotherapy making you feel so ill.’ or
  • ‘It’s hard to look ahead when you’re not sure what will happen.’

This will allow them to continue talking about what’s important to them.

If they cry, saying something like, ‘It’s OK; it’s fine to cry’ will tell them that you’re not put off by their tears. Sometimes touching, holding hands or giving a hug may help too. Tears are a natural response to distress – they can be a helpful release of inner tension for your relative or friend. Some people don’t want to cry because they feel that once they start, they won’t stop. This is not true, as feelings come and go.

Counselling for people with cancer

Some people have repeated episodes of anxiety and depression at some point during their lifetime. If your loved one has struggled with anxiety or depression in the past and they develop cancer, they may have more intense feelings and reactions. In this case, they may be better helped by a trained counsellor. Their GP or the hospital staff will be able to refer them for counselling. Some support groups also have counsellors. If your loved one or friend has counselling this doesn’t mean that you can’t visit, listen or talk with them. Your input will still be valuable.

Religious and spiritual support

People who are very ill may start to question their beliefs about life and its meaning. This may happen whether a person has a particular religious faith, is agnostic or is atheistic.

It’s important to distinguish between religion and spirituality. Religion concerns a particular faith, such as Catholicism or Buddhism. Spirituality has a wider meaning and applies to everyone. Spirituality means different things to different people, but some people may think of it as anything that relates to the ’inner soul and being’. A person may describe a piece of music, watching a beautiful sunset, a book that means a lot to them or being in love as something that has spiritual significance for them.

When people are seriously ill, they may feel emptiness, despair or hopelessness. Listening to and being with your relative or friend can really help support them at this difficult time. You don’t need to share a particular belief system to support them in this way. If your loved one has concerns about their religion or spirituality, they may wish to speak with a hospital chaplain or other spiritual leader.

Back to If someone has cancer

Talking and listening

Talking and listening can help your loved one make sense of difficult experiences.

Looking after yourself

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