You may not know the right thing to say when a friend shares that their family member has been diagnosed with cancer. It is important to choose your words carefully, as what you think may sound encouraging or helpful can end up being stressful or hurtful. How can you respond to the news you were given while supporting your friend? Here is our advice on what to say – and what not to say – when someone’s family member has cancer.
What to say when someone’s family member has cancer
If you are searching for the right words to say, consider these responses:
If your friend is too physically or emotionally exhausted to talk, keep the conversation to a minimum and simply express support. Something as simple as “I am here for you,” “I care about you,” or “I am thinking about you” can be meaningful and encouraging without putting pressure on your friend to respond.
Offer specific and practical help
Your friend or family member knows their needs best. Phrase your offers of help in a way that they can clearly say yes or no without guilt or pressure. An open-ended offer of help can be burdensome if it requires your friend to search for a task to assign. Ask questions directly, such as:
- “Can I help you cook next week’s meals?”
- “Does your family member need help with cleaning the house tomorrow?”
- “Can I give your family member a ride to their next appointment?”
Make recommendations – if they are wanted
You may have good resources to share, but keep in mind that unsolicited advice is not welcome. Make your statement specific and action-oriented so your loved one knows precisely what is being offered. For example, try saying, “Do you want to borrow a yoga guide that helped my sister as she recovered from surgery?” instead of saying “I heard yoga is good for surgery recovery.”
Talk about something other than cancer
Your friend may want to take their mind off their family member’s diagnosis. Talking about topics that are not related to cancer can be a welcome reprieve. Change the conversation to something they enjoy, whether that is their favorite TV show, the world of sports, or anything else.
What not to say when someone’s family member has cancer
While you may have the right intentions, some common or instinctual responses may harm more than they help. Try to avoid these responses when your friend shares the news that their family member has cancer:
Avoid asking questions about cancer
Cancer touches every part of someone’s life. They do not want to be pestered with more questions about their family member’s diagnosis, treatment, and side effects, many of which are deeply personal. While it may seem natural to ask follow-up questions about their loved one’s health, it is best to avoid inquiring about these private matters.
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Try not to talk about yourself
Your first instinct may be to share your own experience, but this can come across as tone-deaf or possibly rude. Keep the conversation focused on your friend, and try not to talk about your own point of view unless you are asked.
Avoid making vague offers of help
Your friend has a lot on their mind already. Something as seemingly small as an open-ended offer of help can inadvertently add to their growing list of responsibilities. Instead, make sure your offers of help are specific.
Skip empty affirmations or toxic positivity
You may be surprised to learn that some affirmative statements can be painful to hear. For example, statements like “he is a fighter” or “he will be OK” may appear encouraging and positive, but it may seem like you are minimizing the person’s difficult experience. Your friend’s family member may not be OK, and dismissing that reality, even accidentally, can be upsetting.
Avoid comparing experiences
Each person’s cancer diagnosis comes with its own set of treatment and lifestyle protocols. No two cases are the same, and it can seem narrow-minded to assume so.
Skip religious sentiments
While statements that invoke faith are comforting for some, keep in mind that not everyone is religious. Common phrases like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” can be deeply uncomfortable for those who are not spiritual. Unless you are certain the person you are speaking with will appreciate these statements, stick with statements that do not mention God.
Supporting your friend beyond words
Sharing sentiments of hope, health, and strength is the first step. Through Mend Together, your friend can access free, valuable resources for keeping loved ones updated and organizing gifts. Our Gift & Donation Registry allows patients to accept cash gifts and specify precisely which items will be most helpful for healing. The integrated Community Journal makes it easy to keep everyone updated in a private forum, while our Volunteer Calendar takes the mystery out of practical, everyday support. Learn more here.
Stella Morrison is an award-winning journalist who partners with mission-driven companies to share their stories. She is based in New York City
Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.