How to talk to someone with cancer

It’s often difficult to know what to say or how to start a conversation with someone with cancer. Do you change the subject? Do you stay quiet worried you’ll say the wrong thing? If so, you’re not alone. Many people don’t know what to say to a person who has cancer.

However, staying in touch is always better than staying away. Here are some tips to help you show your support.

  1. Start by acknowledging your awareness of their diagnosis: “I’m sorry to hear that this has happened to you, but I’m here for you”.
  2. Before you ask any questions, check that this is ok, and refrain from sharing the experiences of others particularly if their challenges are complex.
  3. Allow for sadness. Don’t change the subject or ignore teariness. One of the most powerful things you can do is remain present when emotions are
    strong. Just offering the opportunity to talk about how they are feeling is helpful.
  4. Listen. Good listening involves paying attention to what the other person is saying, resisting the urge to interrupt, and acknowledging and validating
    what they have said and their feelings.
  5. Respond. This can be as simple as “I can only imagine…”, “what do you need most?”
  6. Offer to help. Most people find it difficult to ask for help, particularly if they have always been independent. Rather than saying “let me know if there is anything I can do?”, try to think of practical things to offer such as help picking up the kids, mowing the lawn or cooking a meal.
  7. Follow up. Remember to come back with offers of help, if you can. Patients are often offered support and help early in their experience, but this can fade out over time as others get on with their lives. The need for help and support remains constant throughout the cancer continuum.
  8. Treat them normally. It’s unhelpful to change your tone or manner apart from your initial acknowledgement of their situation. Most cancer patients would prefer that you interact with them just as you usually would. Talk about topics other than cancer!
  9. Ask open ended questions – this allows the other person to say as little or as much as they want to: How are things going for you? How are you coping with treatment? How are you feeling?
  10. Let them know you are thinking of them. Verbally reassure them you are keeping them in your thoughts. You might also send texts, emails, or cards to back this up. Remember, the most powerful gifts you can give someone is your time and your attention.

Cancer Council Queensland offers support and information to all Queenslanders affected by cancer. If you have been affected, or know someone that is, please know we’re here to help. For information and support, phone 13 11 20.