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Tips for Talking to Someone with Cancer

Lizzie Wright, LMSW, and Annie Seal, MS, CCLS

October 07, 2019

At Turning Point, a program of The University of Kansas Health System, we have countless participants walk through our doors who have been impacted by cancer in some way. When someone in your life is diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to know what to say and how to help.

We partnered with Lindsay Norris, an oncology nurse, colorectal cancer survivor and Turning Point participant, to develop a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” to best support someone in your life who has cancer.

How to talk to someone with cancer: Do’s and don’ts

DO offer to do something specific you can do for them rather than asking them to let you know if they need anything done. This can include starting a meal train, watching their children, cleaning their house, mowing their lawn, taking their dog for a walk, grocery shopping, etc.

DON’T give unsolicited medical advice or advice in general. It is normal to want to offer solutions to try and fix a situation, such as asking them if they have tried cutting sugar from their diet or eating all organic foods. These statements imply they did something to cause their cancer. Leave the advice to the professionals and offer support by listening and simply saying, “I am sorry you are going through this.”

DO continue talking to them about everyday things like you always have – not just about cancer. Although everything changes after a cancer diagnosis, they need some things to stay the same, like friendships. This is true for kids as well.

DON’T compare stories and assume you know how they feel. This is about them, not you. It is OK to say you don't know what to say or how it would feel, but that you love and support them.

DO acknowledge and provide support to the patient’s family members. Children want to be acknowledged, too.

DON’T assume they are feeling well just because they are doing daily tasks. People can fake it, and they may still be struggling.

DON’T disappear after the “newness” has worn off. People need support throughout the illness, not only at the time of diagnosis. For some people, cancer will be a chronic illness that will be a part of their life forever.

DO offer to drive or accompany them to treatments, but understand if they would prefer privacy or quiet time. Cancer treatments are exhausting, and they may not be up for socializing.

DON’T forget to recognize milestones, even if it’s just a text, so they know you have not forgotten.

DO stay positive and be encouraging, but don't expect them to be positive all of the time. Stay away from statements like “you'll be fine” and “stay strong.”

You aren't alone if you don't know what to say to someone with cancer.

If you're struggling to find the right words, pause for a moment and consider what would be most helpful if you were in their shoes. Keep in mind that everyone responds to challenges differently. Lastly, if the support you're offering is authentic and genuine, don’t overthink it. Simply show up and be present.

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