What Do I Say to Someone With Cancer?
You just got the call that your friend has cancer. If you are a young adult, this may be the first time you personally know someone your age that has cancer. If that’s the case, you probably have no idea what to say or how to interact. We’re here to help you find the answers so you can be the supportive friend they need during this hard time.
Crush the stigma
First of all, cancer places a stigma on conversations. The perception of cancer, what it means for the future, and what it physically and mentally does to a person can sometimes make others feel uncomfortable talking to the person diagnosed. The reality is your friend has not changed as a person, so remember to speak to them the same way you did before their diagnosis. The more you change how you interact with your friend, the more they are reminded that life is different, and they have cancer. The more you filter your conversation, the more isolated and disconnected they will feel to you and the outside world.
Every cancer experience is different, and there will be temporary changes to your friend’s physical and emotional state. Take these into consideration, but remember to stay authentic to your relationship. You won’t be giving your friend the escape and normalcy they need if you are suddenly treating them differently, holding back, acting awkward, over-filtering, or just saying weird things that you would never have said if they didn’t have cancer.
Here are a few things to remember:
- Be present, not perfect. Avoid letting your fear of making a mistake keep you away. Nobody is perfect, and missteps will happen. It is part of being human. This is a new situation for both of you, and there will be plenty of times where both of you don’t know what to do or say.
- Be flexible and meet them where they are physically and emotionally each day. It is always a good idea to check-in. Asking your friend, “What do you feel like doing today?” will help you know how to connect (tone and energy), and what to discuss (or save for another day).
- If you visit in person, turn your phone off and put it aside so you are not distracted. Don’t be the person that visits, but spends more time looking at their phone than the person they are visiting.
- If a misstep happens, acknowledge it and be sure to ask for forgiveness or be willing to forgive. Life is too short to stay angry.
- Sometimes having an activity to focus on can neutralize the stress of what to say and ease the conversation.
- Let your friend initiate private or sensitive topics. Don’t be offended if certain topics are suddenly off the table.
- Avoid saying hurtful things or sharing information that will increase their stress. They are already dealing with a lot, and negative comments can impact their mood, stress level, and treatment response.
- Don’t be afraid to joke and laugh with your friend (of course it goes without saying to not joke at their expense). Cancer creates some really ridiculous situations, so be ready to laugh at yourself for doing or saying something dumb. It will happen, so just own it.
- There will be moments of silence. Embrace those moments, learn to become comfortable with them, and realize that sometimes silence is what your friend wants…with you by their side. Silence is an opportunity to reflect, empathize with your friend, and appreciate your friendship. Many of our Talking Tips come from moments where a friend is trying to break the silence or console a friend, and it backfires.
- Know when it’s time to wrap things up. Your friend may not want to hurt your feelings and tell you it is time to leave. Be on the lookout for cues (or agree to an end time in the beginning so it doesn’t feel personal on either side).
- Keep it fresh and interesting. Find ways to learn, grow, and create new memories together. Consider planning a topic to discuss or an activity to do in-between visits (or get the materials in advance for your next visit).
- Schedule a regular time to meet or connect. It will give both of you something to look forward to and plan for.
Moving forward together
We highly recommend watching Hernan Barangan’s “My Friend Has Cancer” six-part video series about what to do and what to say when your friend has cancer. Hernan is a cancer survivor and director of the film Cancer Rebellion. His helpful and entertaining videos bring together survivors and supporters for a weekend getaway, sharing insights and perspectives on how to interact after a cancer diagnosis, during treatment, and beyond. Seize the Awkward also provides some great tools and tips for getting the conversation started for young adults struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
At the end of the day, all your friend wants and needs from you is compassion, connection, and normalcy. If you know what kind of support your friend desires, you can ensure they receive it. Here are some suggestions for how to move forward together. You can do this!
- Tune in to The Support Report with b-present
- Check out our patient/supporter connection tool
- Learn more about the b-present Foundation