CaringBridge Staff | 06.16.22
When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, it’s hard to know what to say or do. Sadly, this sometimes translates into saying nothing at all.
Every relationship is different, so there are no set requirements for how to talk to someone with cancer. But, there are steps you can take to allow conversations to go smoothly while showing your love and support.
First, Check in With Yourself
Hearing about a loved one’s diagnosis can be shocking, heartbreaking, and everything in between. Whether they break the news in person or you hear it through the grapevine, give yourself space to process and acknowledge all emotions.
It’s important to remember that there will be times when your loved one will not want to talk about their diagnosis. Consider taking a moment on your own to learn more about their condition, whether it be talking with a family member or doing some research.
What to Say to Someone With Cancer
If you’re struggling to find the right words, here are 12 kind things to say to someone with cancer:
1. “I’m here for you.”
Show up for your loved ones and remain by their side as they go through this process. And if you say these words, make sure you mean them, and support them through thick and thin.
2. “You are in my thoughts and prayers.”
Hearing that your wellbeing is on someone’s mind can be a great comfort, and the act of praying may be very peaceful for you as well. If you or your loved one aren’t religious, it’s still helpful to hear someone is sending you good vibes daily.
“My BFF has been fighting cancer for two years & I mail a card each week with uplifting sentiments. I remind her how much she means to me & how proud I am of her strength & faith. I always tell her I’m praying for her journey.”
3. “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, their life will be significantly changed. Let them know they will always have your sympathy and support no matter what.
4. “Let me help you with…”
This is one of the most helpful things you can say. Instead of asking your loved one how you can help, tell them specifically what you’re able to help with.
Treatment, doctor’s appointments and physical symptoms make it difficult to keep up with day-to-day life. Make sure your loved one knows that everything will be taken care of. Their focus should be on healing, not worrying.
Tip: To help coordinate tasks like meal sign up, picking up meds, and more, the CaringBridge Planner is an all-inclusive scheduling tool to help you request and receive – support with everyday tasks. It’s all there, with a time and place for each task and space for anyone who wants to help.
“Instead of placing the burden of decision on the patient or their caregiver, offer specific options of things to do. For example: may I come over and change the linens, clean out the refrigerator, bring teas for when visitors come, read to the patient while you nap.”
“Prepare meals, help with laundry, cleaning and give gifts to help with things to purchase.”
5. Tell a Joke
After all, it’s been said that laughter is the best medicine.
“Chemo nurse says, ‘Well how ya doing today except for the cancer?’ She always made me laugh and we would go on to other funny stories that always lifted the spirits!”
“Cancer is no joke, but is still good to hear one that makes you laugh and takes your mind off of what you are going through. Even if it is just for a couple of minutes! Those minutes always mean the world to me.”
6. “How are you doing?”
Sometimes physical symptoms are one part of the puzzle when it comes to cancer. You can be there for your loved one by asking them how they’re doing not just physically, but emotionally. Don’t be afraid to ask about their mental health, and always lend a shoulder to lean on if they need it.
7. “Any time you need to talk, I’ll listen.”
Having someone there to just listen can be enormously helpful for someone with cancer. They’re experiencing a lot of emotions, and you can provide an outlet for whatever they want to talk about.
8. “What day works for a visit?”
Humans are social creatures. We thrive off personal interactions, especially with those who we feel comfortable around. During this difficult time, it’s crucial to show your support by planning regular visits. This will give your friend or family member a sense of community and help them feel like things are more normal. For example, the CaringBridge Planner helps you coordinate care and organize needs like bringing meals, rides to doctor appointments or taking care of pets.
“Initially, when my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – his friends came around and visited. Further into this disease they stopped coming. My wish is that they still continued to come visit, even if he wasn’t interacting with them. My dad still needed the support and love and care of his friends. I would just go sit with my dad and read to him (even if he snoozed) or talk to him about stuff…even mundane stuff because it helps him to not be alone and to have some sense of “normality” in his illness.”
9. “You are beautiful.”
If undergoing chemotherapy, your loved one may lose their hair during treatment. This is a very emotional process and feeling confident could be a challenge at first.
No matter what physical symptoms your loved one is experiencing, this is an opportunity for you to make sure their inner and outer beauty is recognized.
“I have a friend who was going thru the same journey I was. When we both lost our hair, he would walk up to me and tell me that and give me a kiss on the head. His wife later told me that when he started doing it to her several times a day, it made her feel more comfortable.”
A little motivation goes a long way. Pump your loved one up. Make them feel powerful. Whatever words you choose to convey this, they may appreciate the positivity despite a negative situation.
For more ideas of words to say, these encouraging quotes might help to spark some inspiration.
10. “There are so many things to love about you.”
Cancer has a way of feeling all-encompassing. Those affected may feel like their identity revolves around being a cancer patient. That is simply not true.
Your loved one is so much more than someone who has cancer. They could be a dog-lover, artist, parent… Help them focus on all their amazing traits that have nothing to do with their illness.
11. “Did you see the latest episode?”
This isn’t a specific saying—it’s a reminder to talk about something else other than cancer. Cancer patients spend plenty of time discussing treatment, symptoms and prognosis. Your loved one will appreciate those who can find something brighter to talk about. Whatever the topic, getting their mind off their illness will be refreshing.
12. “We can still do our favorite. . .”
From daily walks, playing cards, or watching your favorite show together, you may suggest continuing your regular routines with your loved one. While they enter a new hurdle of their life, you can help by creating some familiarity for them during a period of unknown.
13. “I love you.”
When nothing else feels right, these three simple, powerful words can mean the world. They might be just the thing your loved one needs to push through the day.
“Offer specific help and unending love – just be human and present and do not expect anything in return.”
Lindsay C. R.
Helpful Tips for Showing Support
Knowing what to say to a cancer patient doesn’t always come naturally, but there are other simple steps you can take to show your support. Below are some general tips for how to show someone you care:
1. Stay in Touch
Visit your loved one whether they’re at home or in the hospital. Showing up can also be as simple as sending a text or a call. Sometimes it is the small gestures that matter the most.
2. Be a Good Listener
Practice active listening by reading what your loved one feels like talking about. If they want to talk about their favorite sports to simply get their mind off things, grant them that space to chat about whatever they want.
“There is an important role in counseling that we can all share in…. it is called ‘Sustaining’…. i.e., just being there. Often there is nothing to say and you don’t have to say anything. I was once a counselor at Billings Hospital at The University of Chicago when a staff aide called me aside and asked me to visit with a young teenage girl with terminal cancer. ‘Something is wrong,’ the aide noted. ‘She won’t talk to anyone.’
So I visited her in her room, introduced myself, and sat down. She didn’t speak. I didn’t speak. I just sat there. After 30 minutes I said, ‘I will be back tomorrow…’ and got up and left. I visited her five times with no conversation, just another 30 minutes of silence. On the fifth day, I got up to leave and she asked ‘Are you coming back tomorrow?’ and I said, ‘Do you want me to come back tomorrow?’ She said that she did and our counseling relationship began.
Sustaining is an important role in counseling. Just be there for the other person. It will be all right.”
3. Connect Them With a Community
If you’re loved one is interested, help them find a cancer support group or system that aligns with what they need. This may take some of the stress of searching for the right group away so they can relax.
4. Start a Prayer Chain
If you are religious, prayer can be a powerful tool for healing and support. Consider starting a prayer chain. This is a way to show your loved one that they have a group of people who love them and are constantly thinking about them.
5. Go to Chemo With Them
It can be lonely going to an appointment by yourself. Offer your company by taking them to chemo. Sometimes having an extra presence in a stressful environment can be exactly what someone needs.
6. Respect Their Privacy
Friends and family often confide in those they trust and love the most when they are struggling with cancer. Remember to respect their privacy and refrain from spreading the news to others unless they ask you to. If they don’t confide in you immediately, don’t take it personally. Everyone handles heavy news differently, and it may take them some time to adjust.
7. Thoughtful Gift Baskets & Gestures
Sending gifts to cancer patients can often be an incredibly thoughtful and meaningful gesture. Gifts don’t have to be grand to show someone you care, and they can be sent from miles away.
8. Love Them
We know that the core of all of these ideas boils down to love. Show your love through your words and actions, and your support will be felt by your loved ones.
Words to Avoid
No one wants to say anything that will make their loved one feel worse. Unfortunately, that means in some cases we turn to cliché language that might not be that helpful. Here are a few common sentiments you may want to avoid:
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “I know how you feel.”
- “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
- “This is God’s plan.”
Statements like these can minimize and dismiss a person’s pain. Instead, focus on sharing positive words that validate what your loved one is going through, or simply offer to listen. A listening ear can be a blessing.
And just note that if you have shared one of these statements before – it’s OK. Nobody is perfect, and we’re all doing our best to learn and grow.
What Ways Do You Show Your Love?
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: it is tough to know what to say when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. We completely understand that not everyone wants to hear the same thing, and what makes one person smile may not be as helpful for another. That being said, we hope a few of these statements resonate with you and make it easier to comfort your loved one.
And if you have any additional ideas, please share them. We’d love to hear what words have helped you.
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