Cancer Treatment Centers of America

12 tips for talking to a loved one with cancer

blog talking with loved one

Talking to a loved one about his or her cancer diagnosis and treatment can be difficult, whether you are a spouse, parent, sibling or child of someone fighting cancer. Many people are not sure what to say or ask their loved one. 

For some, talking about the big “C” brings up personal fears or memories, and they may approach conversations with hesitation, or avoid talking to their loved one about cancer altogether.

Here are some tips to help you find the right words and feel more comfortable talking about cancer.

  1. Let your loved one know you are thinking about him or her. Tell that person, "I'm here for you" or "I love you and we'll get through this together." It's even okay to say, "I don't know what to say." Or send a note that says, "I'm thinking of you."
  2. Think before you speak. Your words and actions can be powerful. Be genuine, empathic and positive instead of overly grave and mournful. Avoid clichés like "hero" and "battle."
  3. Follow your loved one’s lead. Let your loved one set the tone for what he or she wants to talk about. It doesn't always have to be about cancer. Chances are he or she wants to feel as normal as possible. Let that person decide when it’s the best time to talk about cancer.
  4. Focus on your loved one. Avoid talking about your headache, backache or other ailments, stress or troubles.
  5. Just listen. Sometimes simply being there to listen—really listen—is the best thing you can do.
  6. Let your loved one share information. Avoid asking questions about blood results, tumor markers, etc. Instead, let your loved one know you’re available to talk if he or she would like.
  7. Don't minimize your loved one’s experience. Try not to say, "Don't worry, you'll be fine." Instead say, "I'm really sorry" or "I hope it will be okay." Also don't refer to your loved one’s cancer as "the good cancer." These statements downplay what he or she is going through.
  8. Remember, only your loved one knows how he or she is feeling and what it’s like to have cancer. Try saying, "I care about you and want to help" instead of "I know how you feel."
  9. Refrain from physical assessments and negative comments on how the person looks. If anything, say your loved one looks strong or beautiful.
  10. Avoid comparisons. Everyone handles cancer in his or her own way. It’s best not to compare your loved one to other people you know who have had cancer. Just as each person is unique, so is each person’s experience with cancer.
  11. Show your loved one affection and help out when you can. Give your loved one a hug. Show up with a smoothie, books, magazines or music. Offer to cook, do laundry, babysit or run errands.
  12. Share encouraging stories. Offer encouragement through success stories of long-term cancer survivors.

Get more tips and support to help you and your loved one cope with cancer.