What NOT to say to someone with cancer

As World Cancer Day approaches Fionna Holland, a Psychology Lecturer at the University of Derby, who did study on what to say – and not – to someone who has cancer explains more

It can be very difficult to know what to say and what to do when someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, yet the type and quality of support that is offered can make an enormous difference in the person’s life as they navigate their treatment and, hopefully, their recovery.


Cancer can make for difficult conversations, and sometimes these are challenging to gauge. Some people find talking about their diagnosis and treatment uncomfortable, others welcome a chance to discuss it. At times, family, friends and colleagues of someone with cancer may also experience difficulty in speaking about it or knowing what to say. They may struggle to accept the news, feel distressed, and then find themselves saying things which are not comforting or supportive.

Some people find talking about their diagnosis and treatment uncomfortable, others welcome a chance to discuss it.

It can be difficult to understand how someone diagnosed with cancer really feels, what they think and what support they really need.

What is known is that social support offered by others can improve patients’ psychological adjustment and some researchers suggest it can even enhance their survival.

Having spent time interviewing breast cancer survivors for a research project, it is very clear that having a network of supportive people around is vital. The project, a collaboration between researchers at the University of Derby and Imperial College London, recruited women via a Breast Cancer Care UK web forum.

We interviewed a sample of younger women who had opted not to have breast reconstruction following a mastectomy to find out how their treatment choices had affected their relationships with partners, friends and family members – something which has never been explored in a study before.

The women explained that, although the level of support they encountered was mostly positive, sometimes it was well-meaning but negatively received and, on occasions, it was emotionally distressing to them. The study’s findings offer ways that we can better support people living with cancer. These are the things we identified as unhelpful and what to say instead:

The women explained that, although the support they encountered was positive and well-meaning, on occasions it was emotionally distressing to them


1. Don’t tell them what you would do in their situation

In some cases, friends and acquaintances made unhelpful comments about how they might make different decisions if it were them facing a mastectomy. Women who were given messages such as ‘I’ll love you whatever’, regardless of whether they elected to seek reconstructive surgery or not, and who heard that their decisions would be fully supported by their partners and friends, told us they felt the most supported.

Women who were told ‘I’ll love you whatever’ felt the most supported in their decisions



2. Don’t become so emotional that they support you

Offering cancer patients a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on and supporting them in making decisions that are right for them are roles that close friends and family can play. But don’t be so distressed that they feel they need to tell you it’s going to be fine.



3. Don’t assume they need help to do things 

Offer to help with everyday tasks such as child care, going shopping, taking them to the hospital, cleaning their house, walking the dog or making a meal for their family. Friends and acquaintances often come into their own by supporting in everyday tasks such as helping cancer patients with child care. But not all people will need – or want – this help.


Cancer-what not to say

4. Don’t google the type of cancer they have and then offer statistics

Some people don’t want to know their odds, the statistics and the recurrence rate unless they ask you to tell them. If in doubt, don’t give informational advice, try supporting them in other ways. Offer to go with them to a medical appointment to take notes for them so this can help them to remember all the information that was discussed.

Some people don’t want to know their odds, the statistics and the recurrence rate



5. Don’t assume they will change their whole life 

Their life has turned upside down and they are adjusting to a new reality. Allow them to talk things through with you if they (and you) are ready. Try to support them as they make sense of the information in their own way.



6. Don’t comment on their return to work as a return to normalcy 

Comments such as “oh, you’re back to normal” when returning to work after cancer treatment were considered to diminish the enormity of the psychological and physical ordeal the patient had been through.



7. Don’t assume they want your help 

The women in our study appreciated that having their children have more of a sense of normality during times of treatment helped them feel supported and more able to look after their own needs. Always ask if they would appreciate this type of support but don’t assume people need it.

Always ask if they would appreciate this type of support.



8. Don’t turn into their doctor

This is the role of health care practitioners and patients are often overwhelmed with information and may have to make decisions about their treatment based on this, sometimes within a short time-scale. Offer them a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear and support them in their decisions but don’t give medical opinions.

February 4th is World Cancer Day

More about cancer on Healthista:

8 proven ways to prevent cancer

9 signs of cancer you’re probably missing 


Fiona Holland worked in the fitness and wellness industry in the US for 13 years, supporting behaviour change in a variety of settings. Fiona’s research interests lie broadly within health and wellbeing. She is particularly interested in qualitative methodologies in the areas of body image and esteem, benefits of wellbeing interventions on psychological health, positive psychology and behaviour change.



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