Talking about Cancer: What should I say?


It is never easy to have conversations about heavy topics, and cancer is no exception. Whether it be to a person who has cancer, a friend struggling with the diagnosis of another, or someone suspecting they might have cancer, we want to make sure we aren’t saying things that will make them feel worse. We have compiled a short list of statements that real people who suffer from a cancer diagnosis say are unsettling, and alternate statements to use to make people feel more valued when dealing with an illness as tough as cancer.

What TO say vs. What NOT to say

“I know someone that died of cancer.” This leaves people feeling scared and hopeless. Don’t fill other’s minds with the idea of death in attempt to relate, but rather acknowledge that you are familiar with their struggles in another way. Try saying, “I know someone who had cancer, so I know how tough this can be”. 

“I didn’t think you would want to.” Not including someone who is dealing with cancer hurts worse than that person having no option but to say no. Everyone likes to be included, so making an effort can speak volume. You never know, the person might be feeling up for a trip out of the house and spending time with friends. You may even want to include, “I understand if you aren’t feeling up for this, but…” just so they don’t feel obligated to say yes if they aren’t feeling well enough for it. 

“Everything happens for a reason.” The intentions are there, but unfortunately this one can make people easily upset. It can suggest that they have to suffer for some reason they don’t understand and downplay their pain. Cancer really just sucks, and people might not want to think that this tremendously difficult chapter is for something better, because it doesn’t usually feel like that. Stick with a more comforting and realistic phrase, like “I’m here for you. You have such a great support system.”

Being completely silent. This makes both you and the individual that you’re talking to feel even more uncomfortable. Simply tell the person that you aren’t sure what to say, but that you are so sorry and are here for them.

“Let me know if you need anything!” Oftentimes, we wholeheartedly mean this when we say it. However, the person you are talking to likely will not reach back out to you for help, either because they don’t know what they need, or because they refuse to be vulnerable and admit they need help. Instead, offer specific things, like a meal or going to appointments with them. Even better, don’t even ask if you can, just bring them a meal or tell them you would like to come to their next appointment with them. 

“Congratulations on completing your treatment!” This statement can be tricky because treatment isn’t something that is necessarily accomplished and complete. Some people may need to go back, and even if they don’t, they still have constant appointments to run scans and make sure things look okay. It is always important to read how the person is feeling, and ask questions like “How are you feeling about your treatment?” or “What is next for you?”

“At least it’s not (fill in the blank).” Although it appears this statement is positive and full of hope, it really undermines this person’s struggles. Let’s face it, all cancer is bad cancer and it can be scary, so never make a person feel like they should be “lucky” for having any type of cancer. Just remind them that you’re here for them, and that technology and knowledge on cancer is advancing every day.