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What to Say When Someone’s Family Member Has Cancer

what to say when someone's family member has cancer

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:

Express support

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.

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12 Best Questions to Ask an Oncologist before Chemotherapy

You may feel stunned or in shock after hearing your cancer diagnosis. That shock is followed by many questions you will have about your treatment and prognosis. This list of questions to ask your oncologist before chemotherapy is a helpful reminder of the questions you need answers to as treatment begins.

Questions to ask your oncologist before chemotherapy

You can bring this Mend Together guide to your next oncology appointment to help guide you as you ask questions about your chemotherapy treatment. 

1. What is the goal of my cancer treatment?

  • Why this question is important: The goal for your treatment may be to cure you of cancer, to improve your quality of life, or to extend your life, also called “quantity of life.” Your chemotherapy regimen may look different depending on the treatment goal.
  • How to be proactive: Be sure to ask outright about the goal of your treatment, so you can best prepare for the weeks and months ahead. 

2. How will treatment be administered?

  • Why this question is important: Chemotherapy may be administered in pill form, in liquid form, an injection, or an infusion, depending on your diagnosis and needs. Each form has its benefits, drawbacks, and side effects.
  • How to be proactive: You can get what you need for chemotherapy treatment before it begins. For example, you may need a port or a PICC line. If so, you may want to buy accessible clothing so these items can be reached without undressing.

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3. When will side effects start?

  • Why this question is important: Knowing when side effects may begin is just as important as knowing what they are. Nausea, vomiting, pain, and hair loss are all common. However, they may not appear for everyone on the same timetable, if at all. 
  • How to be proactive: While an oncologist may not prescribe anti-nausea or pain medication right away, knowing roughly when side effects begin can help you determine when you may need it. You may also want to have products such as anti-nausea ginger gum at the ready.

4. Why should my diet change while undergoing chemotherapy?

  • Why this question is important: Nutrient-dense foods are key to successful outcomes. Nutrient-dense food supports an immune system weakened by chemotherapy and helps facilitate healing. Your oncologist may have recommendations, such as the vegan diet recommended by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Or, you may be referred to a nutritionist.
  • How to be proactive: Research easy and nutritious recipes you can prepare with minimal effort on exhausting days, like avocado toast or overnight oats. You may also want to prepare food that freezes well to eat on days you are too tired to cook, like vegetable soup.  

5. Can I book a second appointment to discuss my diagnosis?

  • Why this question is important: You may have gone into shock when you heard you have cancer. The emotional trauma of coping with the difficult news makes it hard to focus on anything else. 
  • How to be proactive: Ask for a second visit so you can return ready to talk about next steps. This way, you can focus on the important information your doctor will relay instead of coping with trauma while trying to make important health decisions. 

6. Can I record this conversation?

  • Why this question is important: You will hear a lot of information during any one appointment. Recording the conversation and playing it back later can help you confirm what you heard and catch what you may have missed.
  • How to be proactive: Bring a recorder or your smartphone with you to the appointment. You may want to call ahead of time to ask if recording the conversation is OK.

7. Who should I contact if I have questions, concerns, or issues?

  • Why this question is important: Your oncologist is a very busy person, and you may not be able to speak with them directly when you have questions or concerns.
  • How to be proactive: Ask your doctor’s office if they have a nurse navigator program. This team serves as a dedicated liaison between you and the oncologist so you can get your questions answered quickly. Many nurse navigator programs operate after hours.

8. How much does treatment cost?

  • Why this question is important: The cost of cancer treatment is dizzying and adds up quickly, adding to the emotional drain of managing chemotherapy. If you have insurance, confirming coverage or reimbursements takes a lot of time and energy. 
  • How to be proactive: Many oncology offices offer help when it comes to billing and
    The American Cancer Society recommends bringing a trusted family member or friend with you to appointments. They can help ease the burden of having multiple conversations over finances.  

9. What sort of assistance will I need?

  • Why this question is important: Once friends and family learn of your diagnosis, you will likely be flooded with offers of help, from rides to the oncologist to making dinners at home. While these offers come from a kind place, it may be overwhelming to address these offers.
  • How to be proactive: Consider utilizing the resources offered by groups like Mend Together, which offer tools that help streamline and manage gifts from loved ones. You can set up a registry with needed items as well as cash gifts, a journal a friend or family member can update on your behalf, and a volunteer signup calendar to properly manage gifts of time.

10. Do you have mental health resources?

  • Why this question is important: Managing cancer treatment is emotionally draining. Taking care of your mental health can help you manage those tough feelings.
  • How to be proactive: In addition to obtaining mental health resources from your oncologist, you may want to explore ways to manage mental health at home. You may find a yoga guide, meditation guides, or a breath tracker to be helpful tools. 

11. Do you know of any support groups I can join?

  • Why this question is important: You are not alone. Support groups can help you manage complicated and difficult emotions surrounding cancer treatment. They can be particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, too, as you may need to isolate until vaccination is widespread.
  • How to be proactive: Seek out support group information before treatment begins, as to not overburden you while you are undergoing treatment.

12. Do I need a second opinion?

  • Why this question is important: A second opinion gives more clarity and assurance after a cancer diagnosis.
  • How to be proactive: Consider booking an appointment with a second oncologist when you book the appointment with your first oncologist. Additionally, ask for copies of your test results and other medical documentation so you can bring as much information as possible to the next appointment. 

Nothing in the world can prepare you for the moment you learn that you need chemotherapy. For many, the oncologist’s office is a crash course on the ins and outs of cancer treatment, and the process to learn it all can be overwhelming. By preparing the right questions to ask your oncologist, you can leave your appointments feeling more prepared for the challenges ahead.

Mend Together’s free resources can help guide you and your loved ones during and after a cancer diagnosis. Whether you find comfort in sharing updates through the Community Journal, want to build a Cash & Donation Registry with helpful items after surgery, or wish to organize practical help with our Volunteer Calendar: these tools help you and your loved ones navigate the challenges that lie ahead. Start your account today.


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.

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Finding Words of Encouragement for the Spouse of a Cancer Patient

Cancer doesn’t just affect the person who receives the cancer diagnosis. Family members may also feel worried, angry, helpless, or afraid— a wide range of emotions. It’s a difficult time for everyone involved, impacting family relationships, stress levels, and financial security.

A spouse often bears most of the responsibility for providing emotional and physical support after a cancer diagnosis. While there is often plenty of support options and advice for the person with cancer, the caregiver or spouse is sometimes overlooked.

Here is some guidance to find words of encouragement for the spouse of a cancer patient.

Challenges of being a cancer spouse

The effects of cancer go beyond health concerns and cancer treatment. The pressure on a spouse comes in many forms, including: 

  • Suddenly being the one solely in charge of paying bills
  • Providing or finding childcare during cancer treatments
  • Running errands, grocery shopping, cooking meals, and driving to and from chemotherapy treatments
  • The exhaustion of a caretaking itinerary dictated by appointments, treatments, medication schedules
  • The emotional stress of bearing witness to their partner’s fears, anger, frustration, and pain while dealing with their own difficult emotions
  • The loss of sexual intimacy and other forms of physical closeness 
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Feelings of depression and isolation
  • Experiencing anticipatory grief and worry
  • Changes to routine and quality of life
  • Dealing with unsolicited advice
  • Guilt and a feeling of needing to be “the strong one” in the face of cancer

Additional outside circumstances like Covid-19, a change of job, moving, or children leaving for college can exacerbate the isolation of cancer patients and cancer caregivers. 

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What can I say to someone whose spouse has cancer?

People have unique needs when it comes to words of encouragement. Some might want you to pray for them or participate in their spiritual life. Words of encouragement might also include practical offers of food or the care of children during chemo treatments. Depending on your relationship with the family, you can step in and provide company during treatment so the spouse can take some space during chemotherapy sessions.

Some people might just need to be reminded that you are there for them and have not shied away from them during their challenging time. Scheduling regular phone calls to check in or taking them for a cup of coffee is a simple gesture that shows you care.

Often, caretakers are reluctant to reach out for support of their own. Making eye contact and acknowledging a spouse’s experience and needs in the midst of their partner’s illness can be a real lifeline for an overwhelmed partner.

“I don’t like to talk about our situation except to update family and friends. I try to keep from feeling sorry for myself because ‘he’ is the one with Cancer after all. Being “in charge” is a lonely place when you are used to working as a team.”

-Susan S. wife of Prostate Cancer Patient

Inspiring words of encouragement for the spouse of a cancer patient

They have cards for cancer patients and plenty of advice on what to say to a friend with cancer, but there’s limited advice on what to say to a spouse. Here are 12 heartfelt affirmations and words of encouragement to offer someone whose spouse has cancer:  

  1. “Nothing I can say will make this better but I’m here for you.”
  2. “I am so sorry you are going through this”
  3. “I would like to bring your family a meal this week. Would that be okay?”
  4. “I’m sending positive thoughts your way today.”
  5. “I can pick up some chores for you, what would you like me to do?”
  6. “I will put you in my prayers.”
  7. “I’d love to watch your kids for a night if you’d like to get some extra rest.”
  8. “I am so glad you are  my friend.”
  9. “I don’t know what these next few months will be like for you, but I am here for you.”
  10. “Is there a certain website or book I can read to learn more about what you’re going through?”
  11. “You’re stronger than you know, braver than you think, more loved than you can imagine.”
  12. “I wish I could take all of this pain and sorrow from you, but for now I will offer my hand to hold and my shoulder to lean upon.”

Finding ways to connect in person can be challenging when a spouse is already overwhelmed by cancer-related tasks and added household responsibilities. And during a pandemic, that gets even harder.

But there are so many ways to find support and community online, and you can be creative in thinking of ways to send a message, or thoughtful presents to cheer them up. You can offer to help set up a cancer registry to collect funds and useful items for their journey, or just offer to be there when they need a shoulder to cry on or a have a favor to ask.  

Create an account to start a support registry and volunteer calendar here

Caregiver Burnout

Cancer caregiver burnout is the emotional and physical exhaustion that comes from helping a person with cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, 50% of caregivers report high emotional stress during their experience with cancer. 25% of respondents also reported increased financial strain during an already tough time.

Paul’s Cancer Story

Paul discusses changes in his quality of life after his wife received a breast cancer diagnosis. His story is just one of many cancer experiences spouses face every day.

“I don’t like to talk much about it and I’m trying to stay strong for everyone, going the extra mile to make sure the family feels taken care of. Everywhere I read, it says to find a support group. Well thanks to Covid, that’s easier said than done! A lot of the time I feel like I’m floundering in the dark. After going to work, taking my wife to appointments, cooking, and playing with the kids, I feel even further away from my wife. She is always tired (I completely understand) and we never seem to get close anymore. Then I end up feeling guilty because intimacy is the least of our concerns!”

–Paul M. husband of a breast cancer patient

Jackie’s Cancer Story

Caring for people with cancer, especially a spouse, is a tough job that deserves recognition and support. Jackie discusses the importance of self-care as a cancer spouse and how to find moments of peace in your day-to-day life. 

“I got great advice from my mum who’s been there (she lost my dad 25 years ago).

Now I’m here with my partner. She reminded me that I need to take 5 mins to myself, and look at something pretty, or which brings me joy. Sit at a park for 5 minutes after I do the shopping. Just sit with the focus on myself and let go of worry for a moment. It’s not selfish.  It helps us help them. As caretakers we have a lot on our plate, everyone deserves a break.”

–Jackie L. wife of a stomach cancer patient

How to Care for the Caregiver 

If you know someone whose spouse has cancer, it is important to remind them that they, too, have your support and deserve it. 

Providing opportunities for self-care is one of the best ways to help support a family with cancer. 

In addition to encouraging a spouse to take a few minutes per day for self-care, you can send them helpful caregiver meditation tools, or thoughtful gifts to help them relax, or just offer to pick up a chore, or cook a meal.

Sometimes, because friends and family are at a loss for words, they say nothing, which increases the pressure on the spouse of a cancer patient. Or they focus all their energy on the patient; forgetting that the spouse is also in pain, but may not feel like they have the “right” to express it. It might be hard to come up with the perfect thing to say in person or in a card to someone who is taking care of a spouse with cancer. But the most important thing is to say something.

Showing up is the first and most important step. You don’t have to have the perfect words of encouragement for spouse of cancer patients. Just speak from the heart. And of course, you can always go with a simple “I love you.”


Kate Rigg is a cancer advocate and graduate from the Juilliard School in New York with an honors degree in creative writing from the University of Melbourne.

Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.

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What to Say to a Cancer Patient (and What to Avoid)

what to say to a cancer patient

You want to say the right thing to your loved one, friend or colleague who’s been diagnosed or recovering from cancer. But you’re not sure what’s best—and the last thing you want to do is say something wrong. It’s OK if you don’t know exactly what to say to say a cancer patient. We’ll help you find the right words.

1. DO ask about our emotional health.

Don’t say: “How are you?”

Some people feel OK with this question, but for others, it’s hard because it’s very broad and they see endless ways to answer it.

Try: “How are your spirits?”

Try: “What’s been on your mind lately?”

Try: “Are there days of the week that are harder than others? I’d like to plan a weekly ritual for us that might make them easier.”

This is more specific, and it opens the door to sharing emotional burdens. “While others may want to find out what’s going on with our diagnosis or treatments, we patients often need to talk about our feelings. Asking “How are your spirits?” gives us permission to go there in a non-socially awkward way,” explains Mend Together founder Lisa Lefebvre. “I’m not going to dump on you out of the blue at a social gathering. But if you give me a window to open up, I might gratefully accept.”

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2. DON’T comment on appearance.

Don’t say: “You look pale.”

Don’t say: “You’ve lost a lot of weight.”

Don’t say: “Your poor hair!”

Don’t say: “Wow, did they remove your breasts?”

Don’t talk about how your friend or loved one looks. They already know. “I lost 26 pounds,” says Sharon Seibel, who underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer. “For me, trying to gain weight was a struggle.” Comments made Seibel feel worse. There’s no way to frame cancer-related bodily changes in a positive way. Optimism can be infuriating. Even if you see a positive in a change, the reason for that change was devastating. Instead, try a simple, upbeat statement that doesn’t focus on appearance.

Try: “It’s so great to see you.”

Try: “I’ve missed you.  You’ve really been on my mind.”

Try: “You know, I really love having you as a friend.  You are very special to me.”

3. DO speak from the heart—but DON’T project your personal anxieties.

Don’t say: “I’ve been so worried about you.”

Don’t say: “I haven’t been sleeping since I found out about your news.”

Don’t say: “Your diagnosis made me think I need to get checked out.”

It’s OK if you’re having a hard time dealing with your loved one’s cancer. But don’t succumb to the all-about-me syndrome. Try to be present and supportive of the person directly in front of you instead.

Try: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”

Try: “I love you and I’m sorry you are going through this.”

Try: “I’m here for you. If you need to talk, cry, drink wine or eat a gallon of ice cream, just call—I’ll have the glasses and spoons ready.”

4. DON’T say, “Think positive.”

Don’t say: “It could be worse.”

Don’t say: “Just think positive thoughts.”

Don’t say: “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

Don’t say: “Look on the bright side.”

Don’t say: “At least you’re lucky because X,Y or Z.”

Don’t say: “At least you’ve got the good cancer.”

Don’t say: “At least you’re single and don’t have kids to worry about.”

You may think optimism helps your friend feel better, but it often does the opposite. It discredits their feelings and implies positive thinking will somehow cure cancer. Even well-intentioned words can cause pain. “I believe in the power of positive thinking,” explains Dana Dinerman, who underwent treatment for breast cancer. “But I also believe in the power of being able to vent to a friend.”

Try: “I hope things are going better.”

Try: “I know cancer hasn’t been easy. If you’d like to talk about some of the harder parts of this, I’m here for you.”

Try: “Don’t feel you need to look on the bright side. It’s ok to be sad about what’s been happening.”

Try: “That sucks.”

“I cannot tell you how unbelievably healing this is,” says Lefebvre, who was grateful for one particular friend who invariably responded with, “That sucks!” when she told her what was happening. It felt so good to hear those words, Lefebvre says, that she became the first person she’d call—every time.

5. DON’T talk about your aunt, friend, etc. who had cancer.

Don’t say: “My friend Jim just finished treatments. If you met him, you’d never know! He looks so healthy.”

Don’t say: “My aunt had the same cancer. She died, but I’m sure you can beat this.”

Making comparisons is the wrong way to go when deciding what to say to someone with cancer. Bringing up negative outcomes is extremely unsettling. And empty reassurance isn’t helpful. No two cancers or experiences are the same. It’s best not to compare stories.

Try: “What has been the hardest part of your journey?

Try: “Can we figure out together how I can support you with this?”

Try: “I plan to check in with you to see how you’re doing, both during and after treatments.  In the meantime, if you ever feel like you are in a tough place, please let me know if you need someone to vent with.”

6. DO be sensitive about cancer mortality specifics.

Don’t say: “Are you worried about dying?”

Don’t say: “What stage is your cancer?”

Don’t say: “What is your prognosis?”

Don’t ask for details about potential outcomes. Your friend may not want to share these deeply personal details and it may force them to relive upsetting information. If your friend wants to share concerns about the future with you, they will—on their own terms.

“People ask me all the time what stage it is, but I don’t know that they really understand the implications of what it means,” explains Sharon Seibel, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer six years ago. You may not realize it, but it’s like asking how likely she or he is to survive.

Seibel says it may be OK to ask what type of cancer a friend or colleague has, but not always. “People are struggling and constantly swimming upstream—they shouldn’t have to explain everything,” she says.

Try: “I’ve seen you handle some tough stuff in the past, but you don’t need to go through this one alone.  Let’s do this one together.”

Try: “I’m sure the uncertainty of all of this is difficult.  Do you have any concerns about your diagnosis or treatments that you’d like to talk about?  Otherwise, I’m glad to help provide a distraction so you can think about something else.”

We have more ideas on this topic here.

7. DON’T give unsolicited advice.

Don’t say: “You should go see Dr. So-And-So.”

Don’t say: “I’ve read that the best hospital to be treated at is XYZ.”

Don’t say: “You should make healthier meals for yourself.”

“Unsolicited advice is seldom valuable,” says Mache Seibel, MD, a Harvard Medical School faculty member. Unless you’re their doctor, don’t tell your friend what to do. It may feel like you’re putting the blame on them, questioning their choices or doubting their medical team.

“I know it’s hard, especially if you really do feel like you have a great product for someone,” adds Tara Geraghty, who wrote Making Cancer Fun and whose 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with stage IV cancer when she was three. “But trust me—everyone and their mother is offering us a miracle cure.”

Try: “There seems to be so much to learn.  Is there anything I can help you research?”

Try: “I’m sure you are getting lots of advice from people.  I’m confident you will make smart decisions about what’s best for you.”

Try: “If you have tough choices coming up and want help weighing pros and cons, I’m glad to think with you.”

8. DO be sensitive to using ‘war against cancer’ clichés.

Don’t say: “You’re such a fighter.”

Don’t say: “You’re a warrior.”

Don’t say: “You’re so brave.”

Watch your friend’s language carefully. Not every cancer patient identifies with ‘warrior’ terminology. They may not feel like they are in a fight. Or they may feel weak. For some, saying they’re strong can make them feel worse. For others, it may be the support they need.

Try: “There are so many people who love you.  We’re in this with you.”

Try:  “Is there any language that people use that is hard for you, or that you can’t relate to?”

Try: “You don’t have to be strong for me. We can talk about whatever’s on your mind.”

9. DON’T use your belief system to comment on their situation.

Don’t say: “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”

Don’t say: “Miracles do happen.”

Don’t say: “Everything happens for a reason.”

Not everyone is religious or spiritual. Your friend or colleague may have a different belief system than you. It’s best not to impose your approach on them. But you can offer up your spiritual support.

Try: “Don’t ever feel like you are a burden.  This isn’t a one-person job.”

Try: “I may not always have the right words, but please know I have the best of intentions.”

Try: “I have felt deeply for you many times, and watched you make many wise choices on some tough decisions.  You are doing a great job.”

10. DO empathize without assuming you know what they are going through.

Don’t say: “I know how you feel.”

Don’t say: “You’re so much stronger than me!”

Don’t say: “I could never go through what you’re going through.”

Don’t say: “I can’t imagine being you right now.”

Be compassionate, but don’t assume you know what it’s like to be recovering or in between treatments. You’re not in your friend’s shoes—and that’s OK. Don’t make assumptions. Simply be empathic and open.

Try: “This just sucks.”

Try: “I know I can’t really understand what you’re feeling right now, but I wish I did so I could say the right words.”

One caveat: If you’re one cancer patient talking to another, something like, “I found chemo to be really hard. I know it’s not easy,” may be helpful.

11. DON’T profess to be able to predict the future.

Don’t say: “It’ll all work out.”

Don’t say: “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”

Don’t say: “I know you will get through this.”

Nobody knows what the future brings, so it’s best not to pretend you do.  Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. Saying they will, can make your friend feel like a failure if they worry about this–or if things don’t work out.

Try: “Limbo and uncertainty are hard. I’m sorry life has been so unpredictable.”

Try: “There’s probably going to be some ups and downs.  I’m going to do my best to help make the ride a little smoother for you.”

Try: (If your friend expresses fear or anxiety) “It’s completely normal to have concerns.  Let’s try to break them down so they feel more manageable.”

12. DON’T assume the end of treatment is the end of your friend or loved one’s struggles.

Don’t say: “Congratulations on getting through all that.”

Don’t say: “Now you can get on with your life again.”

Don’t say: “I’ll bet you want to start dating again now that your hair has grown back in.”

Finishing treatment isn’t the same as accomplishing something. It’s not something people can simply put behind them. “It’s never really over for us because of endless doctors’ appointments and fear of recurrence,” explains Sonja L. Faulkner, PhD, who underwent treatment for cancer and wrote The Best Friend’s Guide to Breast Cancer: What to Do if Your Bosom Buddy or Loved One is Diagnosed.

Cancer changes us permanently—for better or worse. No one ever gets their old life back. Their bodies might not be quite the same as before. Learning to accept permanent loss of body parts or functions takes time. Symptoms like anxiety, insomnia and pain and linger for months or years. After treatments end, people assume a patient is back to normal. They are not. They still need you.

Try: “I know you finished XYZ, but I’m still here for you.”

Try: “You’ve been through a lot. Putting life back together isn’t always easy. I’d like to help you if it feels overwhelming at times.”

Try: “Let’s try to spend more time together over the coming weeks.  The end of treatments can bring up lots of feelings.  I want to make sure you have someone to talk to about them.”


Kara Mayer Robinson is a journalist for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, WebMD and Women’s Health & Fitness.

Lisa Lefebvre is the Founder of Mend Together. She has experience recovering from 8 cancer-related surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, radiation protocols and hormone suppression therapy.

Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.