What to Say to A Friend or Loved One Who Has Just Been Diagnosed with Cancer

What to Say to A Friend or Loved One Who Has Just Been Diagnosed with Cancer


Studies show that people do better emotionally in a crisis when they have strong support from family members and friends. If you have a friend or love one that has just been diagnosed, you may find yourself not knowing what to say or do. Maybe you are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Here are some tips:

1) Listen first – talk second.

This may be your biggest challenge when your loved one faces a life-threatening diagnosis. Try to listen without passing judgment and without “cheerleading.” You can’t possibly know exactly what they are feeling, or what is going through their mind. As well-intended as you might be, your excessive optimism may have a negative effect. Your ability to sit with them and listen as they share their feelings is probably the single best thing that you can do for them right now.

2) Give advice only when you are asked

Friends and loved ones often take on the task of researching the diagnosis, treatment options or clinical trials. This can be very helpful, as the information is often daunting at best. Whatever you do, do not say, “You ought to try this” or “You should do that.” Instead, let them know that you’ve done your research and allow them to decide if they want to hear what you have to say.

3) Learn as much as you can about their cancer

American Cancer Society (cancer.org) and other reputable organizations have helpful literature and user-friendly websites that provide detailed information about cancer treatments, side effects and other related concerns.



4) Support your loved one’s treatment decisions

It is their body and their life. While you may be in a position to share decision-making, ultimately it is your loved one’s body and spirit that bear the impact of the cancer.

5) Remember the caregiver; the spouse, partner, parent, or adult child of the person with cancer

Caregivers take on necessary tasks such as driving to treatment, arranging medical appointments, and providing much-needed care and emotional support. Oftentimes, they also take on many of the roles formerly handled by the person who has been diagnosed. The caregiver can also benefit from additional help with these tasks.

6) Don’t become invisible

Cancer treatment can be lengthy, and the cancer journey continues long after the last day of treatment. Cancer patients often note that calls become infrequent from friends and family after the initial crisis of diagnosis. I know firsthand that checking in regularly to see how they are doing or offering to come by for a visit is both helpful and incredibly meaningful for them.

7) Don’t “baby” them

You may try to make life easier for the person going through treatment by “doing things” for them. It is more about US, than it is them. It’s a way that we make ourselves feel useful at a time we may otherwise feel helpless. Performing their normal activities of daily living may keep them from focusing on the fact that they have cancer and prevent the disease from taking control of their lives. Being able to do things for themselves may make them feel less helpless. Try not to make their cancer the topic of every conversation.

8) No two people will have the same response to treatment.

Everyone will have their own needs, reactions, and responses to the impact cancer has had on their lives. After treatment is over, it is a time when your loved one will need to determine what their new “norm” is. The safety net of medical providers and doctors’ appointments has been ripped out from beneath them. While they are relieved that treatment is over, they may also feel scared and alone. This is often the time when people begin to process the enormity of what they have been through. Prior to this, they were deeply involved in and distracted by, all the medical issues such as getting to treatment, maintaining some semblance of normalcy, and coping