Perfecting Communication After a Cancer Diagnosis

Cancer is a difficult and life-changing experience that can significantly impact an individual’s mental and emotional well-being. Good communication skills can help build trust, alleviate anxiety, and improve the overall experience of managing cancer. These skills are essential when seeking or offering support after a cancer diagnosis. Without clear communication, problems can arise, expectations can go unmet, feelings can get hurt, and the mental health of all involved can suffer as anxiety, fear, withdrawal, and isolation mount.


Active Listening

The first step in practicing good communication is to be an active listener. This means giving your full attention to the person speaking, acknowledging their feelings, and responding in a supportive and empathetic manner.

For example, if a friend is telling you about their cancer diagnosis, listening attentively, validating their feelings, and expressing your support is critical.

Be Honest

Another important aspect of good communication is being honest and transparent. This means being truthful about what you know and what you don’t know and avoiding giving false hope or sugarcoating the situation.

For example, be honest and acknowledge when you don’t know what to say. This is likely new territory for both of you, and it’s okay not to know what to say. You can embrace the silence and use it as quiet time to reflect.

Respect Boundaries

Remember to be respectful of the person’s boundaries and needs. This means being sensitive to their emotional state, mindful of their physical limitations, and respecting their decisions.

For example, if a colleague is undergoing chemotherapy, be mindful of their fatigue and avoid scheduling meetings at times that would be difficult for them.

Avoid poor communication practices

  • Interrupting the person speaking
  • Dismissing their feelings
  • Giving unsolicited advice

For example, if a friend is telling you about their cancer diagnosis and you interrupt them with your own story or dismiss their feelings by saying something like “at least it’s not stage 4,” it can make them feel unsupported and invalidated.

Communication is a two-way street

Good communication is a two-way street and is key to every aspect of the cancer experience, the quality of our connections, and ultimately our experience as a survivor or supporter. Remember to be aware of your own communication style and be open to learning and practicing different techniques to support and help others in the best possible way.

Learn more about supporting a friend:

Supporter Mistakes: What To Do When You Get It Wrong

We all want to support our friend with cancer in the best way we can, and most of us would shudder at the thought of saying or doing the wrong thing when trying to support them. Inevitably though, because you can’t know what it’s like to be in their shoes, you will get it wrong at some point. Mistakes happen. But fear not – unless you say something particularly hateful, most of these gaffes can be overcome with the proper response. So what do you do when you get it wrong?

Acknowledge mistakes without trying to justify them

This is important. Nothing is more frustrating than someone trying to apologize to you while also justifying their actions. Acknowledge that you were wrong and don’t give any sort of qualifiers to it. 

Give a whole-hearted apology

Make sure that when you apologize, it is clear that it comes from the heart. Don’t just flippantly say sorry, make it clear that you’re committed to correcting whatever you did wrong. 

Don’t dwell on the mistakes

This is the most important part. I had so many times when friends would get it wrong and apologize, but then walked on eggshells around me afterward. Make sure that when you apologize, and they accept your apology, you move on without awkwardness. If you continue walking on eggshells, you’ll probably make them more uncomfortable than the original gaffe did. 

Using these three steps, you will be more prepared to move past any awkwardness that might arise in your friendship. Want a more in-depth conversation about an example of getting it wrong and making it right, check out our podcast episode, What To Do When You Get It Wrong.

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Improve Your Conversations With Active Listening

Have you ever been in a conversation and thought to yourself, “Wow, this person really hears me, understands me, and supports me?” We have. It’s those moments of genuine connection that we cherish so dearly. But great conversations take practice and dedication from both parties. If you’re looking to level up your conversation skills and nurture your relationships, practice and master active listening—giving your full attention to the speaker and focusing on what is being said rather than just passively ‘hearing’ them.

Why practice active listening?

It earns the speaker’s trust and helps you to understand their situation. Active listening consists of a desire to comprehend and offer support and empathy to the person speaking. Be fully present, engaged, and immersed in what the other person is saying. Prepare to listen, observe what verbal and non-verbal messages are being sent, and provide appropriate feedback to show attentiveness. 

Unhelpful listening habits:

  • Interrupting
  • Not making eye contact
  • Rushing the speaker
  • Becoming distracted
  • “Topping” the story
  • Forgetting what was said
  • Daydreaming

How does active listening benefit your relationships?

It allows you to ask questions so you can fully understand where the other person is coming from and respond with empathy. And, it validates the person speaking and makes them want to continue talking to you.

Listening actively to a friend going through a difficult time is a valuable skill because you will be less likely to jump in with a “quick fix” when the other person just wants to be heard. It’s one of the best gifts you can give your loved one.

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Examples of What to Say When Someone Has Cancer

In cancer conversations, comments intended to express empathy or comfort can backfire when they are dismissive of the person’s situation, choices, decisions, or emotions. We designed our Talking Tips to help supporters avoid these pitfalls. Our Talking Tips compare unhelpful comments that, believe it or not, have actually been said to a someone with cancer with an improved and more mindful way of phrasing the sentiment.


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“I’ll be here to support you.”

Talking to a friend with a life-threatening illness can be intimidating, stressful, and even awkward. It is often hard to find the right words to say, but remember, your friend feels just as unsure as you about what to do or say.

One thing that is unhelpful is making promises you can’t keep. Instead, start by letting your friend know you will be there for them, and then you can figure out what’s next…together. They need you to b-present now more than ever.



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“I’ll tell you about my day, and then you can tell me about yours.”

Everyone has their struggles. Holding back information because you think it’s not worthy can make the conversation feel abnormal and frustrate the other person. They just want to have regular chats like you did before they were diagnosed. Just b-yourself, don’t be afraid to use humor, and when it comes to steering the conversation, let them be your guide!



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“I am going to the store. What can I get you?”

A lot is going on the first few weeks after the diagnosis. Even though it may seem helpful to say something like, “Let me know if you need anything” to the patient or caregiver, it isn’t. It puts the burden on them and gives them another task they need to perform before they can receive help.

Instead, offer tangible things on your own and follow through. For example, offer to set up a meal train, provide rides, do laundry, get groceries, sit with the patient while the primary caregiver takes a break, etc.

Remember, it is humbling to ask for help and is sometimes hard to know what to ask for at the beginning, which can often lead to added stress, so try not to be too pushy. There may be some resistance to accept help at first (the “I don’t want to impose” feeling). Give the patient room to say no, but reinforce that it is no trouble and you are happy to help. As they get more comfortable asking for and accepting help, it will be easier as a supporter to pitch in where needed.



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“I can’t imagine what you are feeling. How can I help?”

Expressing empathy by sharing stories about someone you knew who had cancer and passed away or had severe complications is not helpful. Knowing someone else’s cancer experience doesn’t mean you know what your friend is going through. Negative stories are upsetting, and often cause the cancer patient to expect the worst instead of being hopeful. So what do you say?

It’s okay to admit you have no idea what your friend is going through, so start there. Then ask how you can help them get through this. If they don’t know, then just listen. If they are looking for inspiration, help them find it. If they have questions, write them down so they can ask the doctor later. If there are important questions or resources you think might be helpful, share those when the time feels right. Help comes in many forms. Work with them to find positive and meaningful ways that get them through the day.



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“Now that treatment is over, what’s next? I want to stay connected.”

Just because their treatment is over, doesn’t necessarily mean they are “cured.” Every cancer is different, but cancer survivors will still be in a maintenance period that could last months or years. ⁣⁣After treatment, survivors AND supporters will be re-adjusting in different ways. There will be a sense of relief and a desire to get life back to “normal,” but there will also be anxiety and post-traumatic stress. This transition can feel even more lonely, so remember to continue to be there for each other. Offer to meet for coffee, go for a walk together, or watch the sunset.
Being a good supporter means being present and staying connected through good and bad times. If you are finding it hard to make time, add an event to your calendar that reminds you to reach out. It will mean so much!



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“Yes, you look different, but it does not change who I see.”

No, it’s not just hair. It is a part of one’s identity. It is a way to express ourselves. Most of us have the freedom to style our hair to look the way we want it to look, and when you all of a sudden have that freedom taken away from you, it can be devastating and make one feel vulnerable, insecure, and uncomfortable. ⁣

Cancer patients are already going through the most challenging time in their lives, and hair loss adds to their concerns about being treated differently. When you see your friend without hair for the first time, it will be emotional, but try to match their emotions. If they cry, it’s okay to cry with them. If it seems like they want a regular hangout, hug them, sit back, and follow their lead. Remind them with your words and actions that even though they have lost their hair, it has not changed how you see them.⁣

Avoid comments like, “It will grow back.” While it might seem like these words are encouraging, it can make your friend feel like you are disregarding their emotions. Remember, they are constantly reminded of their illness every time they look in the mirror, and yes, even though hair can grow back, it could take years.

Also, b-aware of your friend’s personal space and comfort level. Initially, they may not want visitors until they have gotten used to their new look, but you can still call or text them and give them a chance to talk about how they are feeling. Once they are ready for visitors, they may prefer to wear a hat or wig when they are around others, so make sure not to drop in unexpectedly. Give them the time to prepare so they are comfortable.⁣

Whether it is giving them space, going with them to buy a hat or wig, connecting with them online, or simply just listening to them, the best thing you can do is b-there for them in ways that feel right at that moment. As long as you are there for them, no matter if that’s in person or online, they will always appreciate your unconditional support.



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“I’ll be here to help you through this.”

Have you ever found yourself in a painful or confusing situation with a friend, and in your struggle to find the right words to say, you settle for “everything happens for a reason”? And…that’s where the conversation probably ended because, well, what could one say in response to that?⁣

Instead of engaging in a potentially helpful and supportive conversation, we can unintentionally shut it down…covering up their pain with a blanket statement because we feel uneasy. If you want to be the best supporter you can be, learn to sit with your friend in their pain. Don’t let your discomfort get in the way of your ability to b-present for them. Assure them that you will always be a part of their support squad, through the good times and the bad.



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“I see you are wearing a mask. What activity would be best today?

Have you ever seen someone wearing a mask, and thought to yourself, “I wonder what they have that could make me sick?” or “I’ll wait for the next elevator, I don’t want to be close enough to get whatever they have.” Yes, these situations have happened, and it can be very upsetting for a cancer patient that already feels different and isolated.

We often associate someone wearing a mask with a contagious disease, but did you know that when cancer patients wear masks, it is not to protect you from them, it is to protect them from their surroundings. Cancer is NOT contagious, so avoid treating someone with cancer like they have an infectious disease. Cancer patients undergoing treatment or recovering from treatment will often have compromised immune systems. This means they are more vulnerable to having severe reactions to common illnesses because their immune system is not strong enough to fight. For them having a fever doesn’t just mean taking aspirin to reduce the symptoms, it means a trip to the emergency room to avoid a life-threatening situation. Wearing a mask is part of their defense in public places.

So what should you do? When you see them with a mask, look past the mask, but don’t ignore what it might mean. Don’t make a big deal about it. Instead, follow their lead. When out in public, ask if there are any limits to activities or places they can go. Don’t make them feel bad for being cautious. Germs are their enemy, and they need to be careful, but they still want to do normal activities so help them find an option that works. Also, if you know you have a cold or are just getting over the flu, let them know, and it may be best to reschedule for another day, especially if they are in the hospital.

Being a good supporter means understanding your friend’s situation and not making them feel bad about the things that they have to do or wear for their own health and safety. This includes looking past the mask and seeing them as the incredible person they are and respecting their limits. Remember, the only thing wrong with them wearing a mask is you can’t see their beautiful smile!



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“Tell me about your treatment so I can help you through this.”

Cancer patients are fighting for their lives. Do you think they really want to do chemotherapy or radiation or take the long list of pills to manage the side effects? No way. ⁣Cancer treatments are complicated, and every patient’s treatment will be different depending on the type of cancer they have as well as their own health and history. They have consulted their doctor and other specialists and made their decision.

Unless they ask for your input, it is not helpful to judge them for their choices, make general upsetting statements about treatment, or suggest alternatives that could impact their life. Imposing your beliefs and opinions will only place doubt and worry in their mind, and lead to frustration that you are not supporting them. So what should you do?

Listen first. If they want to talk about their treatment, take the opportunity to learn more about what it is, how long it will last, and what they will be going through during each phase. Then find ways to be supportive. ⁣If they have questions about the treatment, write them down, so they remember to ask the doctors later. Ask how you can help make them comfortable or reduce their stress during their difficult treatments. Determine if there is a favorite item or activity that will take their mind off the side effects. There might be an errand or chore that they can’t do that is causing stress, so offer to do it for them. Sometimes just hanging out with them will reduce the stress, knowing they are not alone during an uncertain time.

Every day will be different. The more you understand about what they will be going through and how they feel about it, the better prepared you will be to support them in meaningful ways that bring comfort and reduce stress.



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“I want to give you a break. When is a good time?”

A reminder that the primary caregiver needs our support too. They are not only experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety about the future health of their loved one, but also the future of their family unit. The primary caregiver has to be a patient advocate for an illness they knew nothing about before diagnosis and providing care and comfort in the face of unknown challenges. They can become isolated and feel they have no one to talk to for encouragement, answers, or just let off some steam. This adds to the daily stress of keeping the house and finances in order, going to work or school, and caring for the rest of the family, including pets. ⁣
Being supportive of the primary #caregiver is important to their health and well-being, so find things that will give them a physical or emotional break. It can come in many forms, like…⁣

– Running errands
– Helping with household chores
– Bringing meals
– Bringing requested entertainment for a welcome lift
– Staying with the patient while the caregiver takes some needed “me” time

And most importantly, just listening. Give the caregiver a chance to talk and process their feelings. ⁣Whatever support you offer, ensure it reduces stress. Remember, directing help or entertaining visitors can sometimes be stressful and don’t take it personally if they decline. Agree to a fixed amount of time, so they can plan other activities, and be sure to re-confirm on the day of the event since issues will come up at the very last minute.

Be flexible with your visit, and wrap it up if it looks like they are ready for some space. Being present for the caregiver, and being mindful of their emotional and physical state when we offer support will ensure the best and most positive impact for them. It will give them the boost they need so they can continue to b-present in the best way possible for loved ones.

p.s. Don’t forget to acknowledge the primary caregiver’s sacrifices. They have given so much of themselves to bring comfort to our loved ones, and they need to hear out loud that those sacrifices are noticed and appreciated.



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“I’m so glad I get to hang out with you today!”

If your friend is dealing with a life-threatening illness, saying “I feel so sorry for you” through your words and body language is unhelpful and discouraging. Ditch the pity party and figure out how to bring normalcy back into their life. Find an activity you used to enjoy together and know will give them a lift. Often the actions and words that are most appreciated are the ones that make them feel more like a person less like a patient.



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“You are not alone. It is okay to be feeling what you are feeling.”

We all go through tough times, and people help us through them. When chatting with a friend who is struggling with their mental health, it is crucial to provide a non-judgemental space where they can be open about how they are feeling. ⁣

A few tips:

  • Don’t second guess their feelings. While you may be happy to chat and offer support, chances are you aren’t a trained counselor. Try not to make assumptions about what is wrong or jump n too quickly with your own diagnosis or solutions.⁣
  • Let them lead the conversation and don’t pressure them to tell you anything they aren’t ready to talk about. Talking about their struggles with someone else takes courage and trust. ⁣
  • Listen with no distractions. Your friend wants to feel heard. Repeating what they said back to them ensures them that you understood and lets them know that you respect their feelings. ⁣
  • Keep questions open-ended. Try to keep your language neutral. Give the person time to think about and answer your questions, but try not to bombard them with too many questions.⁣
  • Offer to help them find professional support. You can offer to the doctor with them or help them talk to another friend or family member. But try not to take control and allow them to make decisions.⁣

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Talking Tips – How To Be There For A Friend With Cancer

Picture this. You are hanging out with a friend, and there is an uncomfortable silence. Your brain starts racing with things to say to fill the void. Then it happens. You say something insensitive out loud. You may instantly realize you screwed up, and regret your careless words. Or worse, you may be totally oblivious to the fact you said something insensitive, but you notice a sudden change in your friend’s expression and body language and think, “Uh, oh, what did I just say?”

In a perfect world, you would never say anything insensitive to hurt your friend’s feelings, but in reality, when there is an awkward situation where people don’t know what to say, they often say dumb stuff. 


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Where Did I Go Wrong?

In cancer conversations, comments intended to express empathy or comfort can backfire when they are dismissive of the person’s situation, choices, decisions, or emotions. We designed our Talking Tips to help supporters avoid these pitfalls. Our Talking Tips compare unhelpful comments that, believe it or not, have actually been said to a someone with cancer with an improved and more mindful way of phrasing the sentiment.

Unhelpful Things to Avoid

Below are some general landmines to look out for. Try to avoid them if possible.

  • Part of the Plan
    • “Everything happens for a reason.”
    • “You are only given what you can handle.”


  • False Empathy – I know someone
    • “ My ______ had cancer and they died!”


  • The One Up / Compare and Contrast
    • “My grandpa had cancer and that was much worse. You’ll be fine.”


  • Dismissive Comments
    • “At least it’s just cancer.”
    • “You should feel lucky it’s not stage 5 cancer.”  


  • Questionable Questions
    • “Are you going to die?”
    • “Don’t you feel like less of a man/woman now?”


  • You did something to deserve this
    • “You must have must have done _____ to get cancer.”
    • “You probably spent too much time in the sun.”
    • “If you changed your eating habits, this might not have happened.”


  • You Look Too Good
    • “You look good for someone with cancer.”


  • Be Positive
    • “Cancer is a gift.”
    • “You are so positive, you will be fine.”


  • Preaching Alternate / Safer Cures / Lifestyles
    • “Don’t do ___________ it will kill you.”
    • “If you only did ________ it would all go away on its own.”


  • Did you really just say that out loud?  
    • This is the catch-all category of comments that are just so off the wall random, ignorant, or cringeworthy that the recipient is in disbelief or speechless. 


Helpful Talking Tips

As you navigate your conversations, remember these talking tips: 

  • It can feel like you are walking a tightrope sometimes and it is natural to feel unsure about what to say. The fact that you feel uncertain means you care about your friend’s feelings. That’s good.


  • Avoid comments that are dismissive of their diagnosis, experience, how they are feeling, or their choices, and only offer advice when asked.  


  • Be present and aware of their physical and emotional state. 


  • It’s about being mindful of how you say something, not over-filtering what you say. 


  • If you have ever said any comments that fall into one of the themes above, it is never too late to apologize. Words like: “I just realized when I said _________ I was insensitive to your feelings/situation. I apologize and hope you will forgive me.”


  • If you mess up, own it. Be humble. Apologize. Learn from it. Move forward. 


We are stronger together, and better when we can learn from each other. Want to share your experience (anonymous if desired) to help others? We’re all ears and we’d love to share your cancer Talking Tip with our community. 


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Supporter Talking Tips –  Did You Really Just Say That Out Loud?

“What is the worst thing someone said after I was diagnosed? Hmm…do I have to pick just one answer? There are so many!” —Anonymous 

We asked a room full of young adult cancer patients and survivors what the worst thing someone ever said to them after they were diagnosed and some of their answers about knocked our socks off.

  • “Too bad you just dyed your hair.”
  • “Is your disease contagious?”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

Did they really say that out loud? When we don’t know what to say to someone to comfort them, things can get kind of awkward, and it’s easy to say things that we think are helpful when in reality, they are unhelpful and sometimes even offensive. Often, we might not even know that what we said was wrong because our friend is too nice to call us out.

The b-present Foundation’s Supporter Talking Tips are designed to help supporters avoid saying things they might later regret…because no one wants to join the “Did You Really Just Say That Out Loud?” Club.

The b-aware Program

Our b-aware program focuses on educating young adults on the importance of presence and empowering them to support their friends through thick and thin. By sharing other perspectives and lessons on how to express and provide support with our community now, they will be prepared to be strong supporters whenever their friend needs them most.

Supporter Talking Tips

We feature monthly Supporter Talking Tips across our social media channels. Our goal in creating these tips is to show the helpful and unhelpful way things can be said. Many of the tips we share are cancer-focused but can apply to a variety of life situations. Every tip is based on a real story or situation that at least one cancer patient (and often many) has experienced.

The tips are presented in a side-by-side graphic with an unhelpful phrase on the right and a helpful phrase on the left so readers can see just how easy it is to adjust their choice of words to ensure a positive outcome. The unhelpful reflects the thoughtless comments typically said in awkward small talk or when projecting our opinions on their situation. In contrast, the helpful reflects empathy and understanding of the current physical and emotional state of the cancer patient.



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Be real

Finding the right words is not always easy. Think of it less as finding the “right” words, and more as finding the best words in that moment. Candy-coating or avoiding topics altogether, in general, is unhelpful. Have the courage to engage in the topics they want to discuss. Sometimes just acknowledging the reality of the situation without being judgemental or dismissive makes a huge difference. Become comfortable with saying “I don’t know what to say” because at least you are being honest. Listening is often a good alternative and in some cases, better than saying anything.

Even with all the tips in the world, we will still make mistakes. When that happens, own it, apologize, and, if appropriate, have a laugh about it. Talk about how to fix it for next time. Then move forward…together.

Have a tip to share?

Now is your chance to have an impact on future supporters and patients. We would love to share your story and feature your talking tip on your social media! Anonymous or acknowledged—it’s all up to you.

Part of the dreaded “Club” and wish you could go back and change something you said? This is your chance for a do-over. Were you on the receiving end of an eye-rolling remark? This is your chance to fix it for all future supporters and cancer patients. Share with us here!