What to Say When Your Friend or Loved One Tells You They Have Cancer

Patient and Caregiver

A cancer diagnosis is a life changing experience with many challenges.  One of the difficulties with cancer is telling your friends and family.  Knowing that you have a support network there to help you can alleviate some burdens.

One of the first things to consider when you know someone has cancer is that confidentiality and privacy are important.  If you know someone with a diagnosis and they have not told you personally, it is frowned upon to bring it up with them unless they are ok with the information being public.  Also, avoid discussing someone else’s medical information with others. It is always best to let that person reveal their medical information in a manner that gives them the power to decide how someone is told.

Although most of us know at least one person who has had cancer, we may not have been a part of their support network.  We may not always say the right things or word what we mean awkwardly.  Also, we want our actions to reflect how we feel appropriately. The old age golden rule has been to treat others how you would want to be treated.  Now there is the new age platinum rule, treat others how they would want to be treated.

We want to be able to say the right things that will provide our friend or loved one with what they need to fight their cancer.  Here are some common Do’s and Don’ts that we have come across in the past.

Do’s

  • Offer your support.
  • Offer to run errands, either for groceries or basic shopping.
  • Offer to do chores around the house.
  • Offer to cook meals or prepare food.
  • Know when to listen and listen attentively.
  • Be able to determine what kind of feedback is appropriate, sometimes it’s best to just listen.
  • Offer your time to help for driving to appointments.
  • Let the person lead the conversation.

Don’ts

  • Don’t become distant. Visit, call or even write emails often.
  • Don’t be dismissive.  The issues and fears they are facing are imminent.
  • Don’t let the diagnosis change your relationship.
  • Don’t identify the person primarily as a cancer patient.  Your relationship should not revolve around it.
  • Don’t only talk about the cancer.
  • Don’t make false promises
  • Unless you have actually been in there shoes avoid giving advice.

Sometimes in conversation we will say something with good intentions but it is able to be perceived differently. Phrases that are generally positive such as “Everything will be OK” or “Stay positive” don’t actually address the concerns they are having.  When trying to reassure a friend or loved one letting them know you’ll be there for the good and the bad.  Some of the biggest fears are feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Be sure to say things that you are comfortable with. Your honesty and genuineness will let the other person know you truly care.

If you know someone who is dealing with mesothelioma cancer feel free to contact our patient advocates at (855) 404-4592 for free information about mesothelioma and advice on what to do/say to someone who tells you they have cancer.


Ben Leer is an outreach coordinator with The Mesothelioma Center. He works toward increasing education and awareness of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Part of Ben’s job is to reach out and engage with patients, caregivers and family members on our online communities.

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