What Can You Say to Someone with Cancer?

By Niki Barr, PhD

This year alone, 238,000 men will be diagnosed with new cases of prostate cancer, the most common type of cancer. And this year more than 234,000 men and women will learn they have breast cancer, the second most common today, according to the National Cancer Institute. (Women with breast cancer outnumber men by about 100 to one.)

As of January 2012, there were about 13.7 million Americans living with cancer or that had a history of cancer. Chances are, you know one or more of them.

Friends, family, and coworkers can all play an important role in helping a cancer patient’s recovery simply by providing emotional support. After a diagnosis of cancer, people have a greater need for social support. A National Institutes of Health report found that emotional support influences health outcomes. It also found that, of the nine types of social support, emotional support is among the most important.

Even if you’re not among the person’s closest friends or family, you can help far more than you imagine simply by being encouraging and supportive. I understand people don’t always know what to say to someone who’s just been diagnosed or is in the midst of treatments and yes, sometimes they do say the wrong thing. I remind my patients, often, to refuse to listen to cancer horror stories, so please don’t tell those!

While everyone is different, here are a few things my patients consistently say benefit them:

Sometimes saying nothing at all says everything. If your friend or loved one wants to talk about her treatments, complain about his situation, or not talk at all, being a good listener or simply a quiet presence speaks volumes. When a person complains, many of us jump to “help” by suggesting solutions. That’s likely not what your friend or loved one is looking for. As my patients have said time and time again, sometimes they just want to get it all off their chest. An empathetic listener is all the help they need.

Make your offer of help specific. “Call me if you need anything at all,” puts the burden on your loved one—who already carries a tremendous burden! Instead, you might offer to make dinner for her family on Wednesday night and ask what meal everyone enjoys. Or volunteer to drive him to his doctor appointment on Monday afternoon. This makes it easy for your friend to politely accept or decline your offer, and it ensures you can provide the assistance you feel comfortable providing.

Not sure what to talk about? Follow his lead. Some days, my patients want to talk only about their illness, the treatment they’re undergoing, and how they feel. Other days, they want to talk about anything but cancer. We all have days when we’re immersed in our own lives and other days when we want to be distracted, or to just feel normal.

If you’re not sure what to say, err on the side of being positive. Don’t say what you don’t know—for instance, you don’t know that everything is going to be fine. But if you admire your loved one’s strength or sense of humor, or if your friend’s attitude inspires you, tell them so. We all benefit from hearing a sincere compliment.

When a person who’s going through what may be the most difficult, stressful event of their lives knows that you care, it makes a difference. If you’re truly at a loss for words, it never hurts to simply say, “I’m thinking about you.”


Niki Barr, PhD, founded a pioneering psychotherapy practice dedicated to working with cancer patients and their family members, caregivers, and friends. A popular and dynamic speaker, Niki is also the author of Emotional Wellness, The Other Half of Treating Cancer. Niki is on Twitter @NikiBarrPhD or you can visit her online at canceremotionalwellbeing.com.