Guide On How to Talk to Cancer Patients and Survivors

It’s difficult to find the right words to say to cancer patients or survivors. Don’t feel awkward. Today’s guide on how to talk to someone with cancer will surely help. Read on.
Guide On How to Talk to Cancer Patients and Survivors
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Do you know cancer patients and survivors? Are you having a hard time talking to them? Believe it or not, for many people, it’s pretty difficult, even awkward, to find the right words to say. However, expert psychologists recommend embracing the awkwardness. Likewise, they also recommend approaching the topic head-on. “The biggest challenge with talking to people who have cancer is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Teresa. 

Dr. Teresa Deshields is a psychologist and director of supportive oncology for the Rush Cancer Center. “So, meet the person where they are by respecting their situation and their comfort level discussing their diagnosis.” Sadly, there are countless people that cancer impacted in some way. When someone in your life goes through cancer diagnoses, it’s hard to know what to say. Most importantly, it’s difficult to find a way to help. 

Think before you speak. That’s a good maxim anytime you’re talking to a loved one. “This matters even more when your friend or family member is a cancer patient,” says Dr. Smith. Dr. Thomas Smith is a professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Plus, director of Palliative Medicine for Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Kimmel Cancer Center says, “Unless you’ve heard the words ‘you have cancer,’ we don’t understand the fear and anxiety state people are in”.

Firstly, you already know that support matters. However, don’t assume all support is equal. For instance, research shows that family and friends provide the most helpful emotional support. On the other hand, cancer patients tend to lean on healthcare providers . They do so for informational and decision-making support, according to a brilliant study in Psycho-Oncology .

Want to support your loved one without making a faux pas or unintentionally hurtful comment? Consider these clever conversational rules of thumb. They’ll surely help support your friends and family when they’re going through cancer treatment.

Two people holding hands.

Speak with cancer patients

What will you talk about now that your loved one’s fighting the big C ? Cancer, probably. But don’t assume that’s the only topic on the table. “After you leave the hospital, you’re trying to get some sense of normalcy again. And you just want to hang out with your friends to hear about their lives,” says Shin Lim, a professional photographer who’s been battling brain cancer since 2011. 

Lim was pretty happy to share details and updates about her treatment when her friends asked. On the other hand, she truly cherished the visits where her friends didn’t focus entirely on cancer. “It was nice to see them and hang out, to not necessarily talk about me always,” she says. Talking about everyday events is a break from focusing on the diagnosis.

Most importantly, it’s also a reminder that there’s life beyond the treatment room. Linda Mathew’s a senior clinical social worker at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “From what I saw in years of practice is that patients want their friends to just be their friends,” she says. In other words, they don’t want cancer to control and monopolize every minute of conversation. Plus, it shouldn’t define who they are as a person.

Tailor your talk with cancer patients

According to Dr. Smith, fatigue is a common side effect of many cancer treatments. So, asking your friend to fill you in on every scan or diagnosis detail is more draining than restorative. “I always tell friends and family members to ask the patient directly… ‘What’s the best way I can support you?’” says Mathew. For some patients, it means attending treatments, while chatting in person. For instance, other patients might start a blog. 

This way, friends read updates and share comments there, to spare them the endless task of sharing updates individually. But patient Deborah Michael, a pediatric occupational therapist and North Shore Pediatric founder, loves chatting with friends. Luckily, her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis in 2016 and Central Nervous System lymphoma in 2017 didn’t change that.

 “Talking on the phone’s exhausting when you’re taking medications. And doing all these procedures, biopsies, chemo, and all this stuff,” she says. Contrarily, she finds talking by text less tiring these days. Likewise, she appreciates the loved ones who asked about her communication preferences instead of immediately ringing her by phone. “I love to hear from friends. But, this way, if I need a break, I can, and it’s no big deal,” she says.

Stay optimistic, not dismissive

When they first diagnosed Deborah with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she instantly knew she wouldn’t indulge in morbid comments . So, her friend’s questions floored her. They asked things like “What’s your prognosis?” Plus, they also made off-hand remarks like, “I read there’s a 70% survival rate.” “I told them, ‘I’ll never speak to you again unless you think about what’s coming out of your mouth’”.  

If they were going to be so ridiculous, she didn’t even want to communicate with them. Therefore, advance care planning, hospice care, prognosis rates, and death are topics no one should bring up. Only until the patient shows they’re ready to discuss it, says Dr. Smith, a cancer survivor. So put yourself in their shoes. Would you want to talk about your will when you’re trying to power through treatment? 

In fact, you’re their friend, not their healthcare provider. When a patient thinks about what their odds are, what are the best types of therapy available to them. They certainly don’t need somebody saying, ‘Oh, hospice is great. Make sure you have a will. Lastly, ensure you figure out how to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But, in your quest to not be morbid, be careful not to tilt far in the other direction. 

According to Jennifer Ladisch-Douglass, rare is the cancer patient who can stomach a Pollyanna during chemo treatments. Believe it or not, this lawyer was given a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2014. “People would say things all the time like, ‘Oh, it’s just breast cancer! You’ll be fine!’” she says. 

Likewise, they pointed to cheerily optimistic breast cancer awareness campaigns, which seemed to minimize her feelings and fear. Lastly, another group of people acted like we’re all going to wear pink ribbons. Plus, go on a run and everybody will be fine. But they don’t really see the reality of it. She adds, “Breast cancer is cancer, and it’s deadly, and terrible”.

Avoid judgment

Believe it or not, some people’s remarks shame patients. Though they may have their theories about how someone’s smoking habit contributed to their lung cancer. And another theory on how they might have dodged the diagnosis if they’d only dropped 50 pounds. They should definitely write down those ideas and throw that paper in the garbage. “Shaming cancer patients over their lifestyle choices can be very harmful”. 

“Plus, it’s often scientifically inaccurate,” says Dr. Smith. “The worst part of a diagnosis can be when people feel psychological like they’re responsible for their cancer. And even if there’s some causality to one’s own habits, it’s not helpful to point it out.” Cringe-worthy case in point. “I think my own mom said something like, ‘It’s because you always microwaved your food,’” Lim recalls. 

Alhough she knew the comment was utterly ridiculous, it still stung. Therefore, if a loved one is looking for your help on how to get healthier, try some tips. For instance, you can give them a great smoothie recipe or tips on picking out walking shoes. Go ahead and help out. Likewise, you can even offer to accompany them on their journey to an active lifestyle. Otherwise, stay silent.

Two women hugging.

Other ways to convey support

Firstly, it’s pivotal to remember that your friends and family with cancer are more than their disease. They still have an array of interests. In fact, cancer patients may also want to talk about other aspects of their lives. For example, work, their children, pets, or a recent episode of their favorite television show. Plus, conveying your support doesn’t have to be through conversation. 

In fact, there’s a myriad of ways to offer your support. What people often say is, ‘Just let me know if there’s anything I can do. However, this puts all the initiative, or burden, on the person with cancer. On the other hand, offer them something special, like dropping off a meal or driving them to treatment. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is support them in the ways that they want and need it.

To sum it up, you’re not alone if you don’t know what to say to cancer patients. Are you struggling to find the right words? Pause for a moment and consider what would be most helpful if you were in their shoes. Keep in mind that everyone responds to challenges differently. Lastly, if the support you’re offering is authentic and genuine, don’t overthink it. Simply show up and be present.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.