What to Say When a Loved One Has Cancer

Empathizing with a cancer patient can be difficult. After all, many people haven’t had the experience of being diagnosed with cancer themselves, so knowing what to say when a loved one tells you about their illness can be tricky.

“When someone you love is dealing with something like cancer, there’s a feeling of helplessness,” explains Katelyn MacDougall, LICSW, a social worker within Dana-Farber’s Young Adult Program. “We try to say things we think will make it feel better, but nothing we say is going to make cancer better; patients just want to know that there are people supporting them.”

Patients often report hearing insensitive comments from close friends and strangers alike, with some loved ones not saying anything at all. It’s a conversation MacDougall reports having with almost every patient she meets with.

So what do cancer patients want to hear?

At the Young Adult Program’s 14th annual conference, patients between the ages of 18 and 39 listed the most and least helpful things people have said to them. Here some of the top responses.

What to say

  • “I love you.”
  • “This sucks and I’m sorry you have to go through it.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
  • “I know you’re tired; I just want to watch TV with you.”
  • “I don’t know what to say, but I am here.”
  • “Do you want to talk about it, or be distracted?”
  • “Is today a good day or a bad day?”

Patients overwhelmingly stressed the need for persistent communication, explaining that text messages or emails checking in – without expecting a response – can help them feel less alone. Just having someone there, either in person or virtually, can be a great source of support.

What not to say

  • “Stay positive.”
  • “Let me know what I can do.”
  • “You’ll be fine.”
  • “What’s your prognosis?”
  • “My cousin died of cancer.”
  • “At least you can pull off short hair.”

The pressure to stay positive throughout treatment can take a toll on patients, as can the need for patients to think of tasks for loved ones to do. While almost all of these comments are well-intentioned, patients say thinking of a specific thing you can do to help, such as bringing a meal on a certain day or giving your loved one a ride to treatment, relieves some pressure during an already stressful time.

“I encourage people to think about what their strengths are: Are you better at providing emotional support or providing task-based support?” MacDougall says.

Figuring out where your strengths are can help you feel more comfortable when talking to the patient about their cancer, and provide them with better support.

Patients: What comments did you find helpful, or harmful, in response to your cancer diagnosis? Share them in the comments or email them to insight_blog@dfci.harvard.edu.

Learn more about the Young Adult Program at Dana-Farber, and support for patients of all ages.