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What to Say and Not to Say to People who have Cancer

by Dr Shara BA Cohen(more info)

listed in cancer, originally published in issue 246 - May 2018

Finding out that someone you know has cancer can be upsetting and sometimes a shock to the system and it is often hard to know how to react.  From the cancer patients point of view the worst thing you can do is avoid them.[1-3].  You may be surprised to learn that ignoring a friend with cancer is a common response. Don’t be afraid to talk with your friend. It is better to say, “I don’t know what to say” than to stop calling or visiting because it makes you feel bad or you are nervous about what to say.  The most important thing is to be there and to listen.



When Is The Right Time To Talk To A Person With Cancer?

Everyone is unique, and each person responds to their cancer diagnosis in their own way. Some might want to talk about their diagnosis and treatments and others may find it hard and not want to talk about it at all. In addition, a person’s need to talk can change from day-to-day, depending on how their treatments are going and on other factors. Its always a good rule to let them start the conversation or to ask them if they want to talk about it and let them take conversation where they choose.  If they say they don’t want to talk about it, it is important to listen. 

What If They Don’t Want To Talk At All

Try to be OK with silence as silence can help your friend focus their thoughts. Talking because you’re nervous can be irritating.  In addition, silence can sometimes be comforting.  It is hard to understand all the thoughts that are going on in your friends’ head and all the decisions and life style changes that they may need to make.  If there is silence its Ok to wait until something is said, if you have nothing to say.

What Not To Say

Psychology lecturer Fiona Holland has a few pointers regarding what not to do/say.[4]

  • Don’t get so upset that you can’t be supportive;
  • Don’t assume that they need help to do things;
  • Don’t offer statistics that you have found on the web about their cancer;
  • Don’t assume their whole life will change;
  • Don’t assume that when they go back to work everything is back to how it was.

Try Not To Give Advice

It’s always safer to ask questions or listen.  Giving advice, no matter how good you think it is, is hard when you are not in the person’s shoes.  Talking to a cancer patient about new or alternative treatments or cancer curing diets may not be what a person with cancer wants to hear about when they are trying to get to grips with their diagnosis and prognosis.  Even if you mean well and are convinced that your advice would be of value.  Unless it is asked for, your advice can be upsetting.

Don’t Talk About Other Peoples Cancer

It is best to stay away from the topic of other people’s cancer unless you have an uplifting story that directly relates to the person you are talking to.

Don’t Tell Them How They Should Feel

Our research found an overwhelming number of people with cancer disliked being told to be brave.[5]

Examples of cancer patients’ comments include:

  • “don’t say you are so brave… I was frightened but what choice do you have but to get on with the treatment, just listen” - Lesley Jackson; 
  • “I’ve had 3 diagnoses of cancer. It’s really not helpful when people say “you’re so brave”. It’s not like you have a choice to go through all the sh**!” - Suzanne Wright; 
  • “I know people mean well but when they tell me that they admire my bravery, I want to shout out that I am not brave. I had no choice in accepting the cancer diagnosis, the operation, the chemo, the drugs etc” Christine Davies; 
  • “A few people have said ‘you are soooo brave’ to me. If I am totally honest it made me cringe. I wish I could accept it as a compliment, but I can’t. I am just doing what I have to. To save my life. Save the bravery for those who deserve it much more than me” - Kerry Barker ;
  • ““Stay positive” “you’re so brave” and “you’re an inspiration” are the phrases that annoy me coz I’m not brave or inspirational I’m just trying to live my life and stay positive needs to be taken out the dictionary as it’s so bloody annoying, I am staying positive but it’s still bloody terminal!” - Anita Brown. 

Do not say, “I know how you feel.”

You could make the person with cancer upset because you really don’t know how they feel.  It is hard to understand everything that someone with cancer has to cope with and what they are dealing with. They are not only dealing with their cancer diagnosis and possibly treatments but could be worried about their family or their job. Perhaps they don’t know how they will cope with their everyday life. It’s difficult for anyone else to understand how they are feeling as we are all unique and everyone has their own ways of dealing with things.

With the list of dos and don’ts above, regarding what to say an not to say, the most important message that I hope you get from this is that the best thing you can do for your friend is to be there for them.  Let them talk if they want to, and just have your support when they don’t want to talk.  Isn’t that what we all want from our friends anyway?


1. Talking With Someone Who Has Cancer, -

2. Talking with someone who has cancer  

3. Talking to someone with cancer: five-point guide from Cancer Care Parcel

4. What NOT to say to someone with cancer, according to 6 patients  
5. “Stop telling me to be brave” campaign to support people with cancer


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About Dr Shara BA Cohen

Dr Shara BA Cohen BSc (Hons) PhD CBiol FWIF FRCPath FIBMS FRSB started her working life as a research scientist and lecturer with over 100 peer-reviewed scientific publications. She followed a classical scientific career until she left mainstream science in 2000 (which coincided with the birth of her first daughter) to establish the Life Science Communications company, which she sold in 2016.  In 2013 she was diagnosed with Cancer and set up Cancer Care Parcel with information about dealing with cancer treatments. Dr Shara Cohen may be contacted on Tel: (+44) 020 7183 8231;

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