When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, there is shock, sadness, and there’s the inevitable question of what to say. All too often people stumble and hesitate while struggling to find the right words, then out pour clichés and platitudes (all well-intended) that are often inappropriate. 

These are some things to remember when talking to someone who is or has been affected by cancer or other serious illness. Here are a couple of things you could or absolutely shouldn’t say: 

  • Don’t say : “We’ll do something fun when this is all over” and disappear
    Do say: “I’m here for you.” And mean it.

Cancer can be very isolating and friends tend to fall by the wayside. The best friends are those who remain by our sides throughout and keep in touch with regular phone calls, texts, letters, emails and visits (when we feel up to it). 

  • Don’t say: “You’ll be fine” or “Just stay positive”
    Do say:
    “I’m so sorry you are ill.” 

You’re not a doctor. If our oncologists can’t tell us we will be fine, then you have no way of knowing this. While we realise you are trying to be ‘positive’ and ‘optimistic’, it feels like you are belittling our very real fears. It’s not easy to come to terms with a diagnosis and it is entirely natural to feel scared and worried and have a good cry! A simple acknowledgement that you care and realise that we are having a rubbish time is much better than any meaningless platitude or cliché.

  • Don’t say: Nothing
    Do say:
    “I don’t know what to say.” 

Honesty is the best policy. It’s entirely natural to not know what to say. Just acknowledging the situation and simply being there for your loved one is enough. Try to be open and honest about how you feel, ask how the other person feels and don’t shy away from the heavier topics if they feel the need to talk about them. 

  • Don’t say: “I’ve read about this miracle cure…”
    Do say:
    “Would you like a lift to your treatment?” 

Don’t believe everything you read online. ANYONE can write about a hokum pokum cure on the internet (think Belle Gibson). We have the internet too and have made informed decisions about our treatment options and it is up to me whether to believe that half a lemon a day with a teaspoon of turmeric is a better cure than chemo. Much more useful is an offer of practical help. 

  • Don’t say: “You must be glad this is all over.”
    Do say: “How are you feeling now?” 

It’s very important to know that with something as serious as cancer, it’s never really over. Recuperating from surgery or treatment can take a lot longer than is outwardly obvious. Don’t make assumptions on how someone in remission is feeling, but do check in from time to time. Even if a person is given the all-clear, cancer and treatment can cause long term issues and there can be ongoing side effects (fatigue, weight loss or gain, scarring). It also takes its toll on a person emotionally and afterwards there is often the fear of the cancer returning.

Now that we’ve covered what to say and what not to say to a cancer patient, you might also need some inspiration on gifts that aren’t a total cliché. A simple ‘get well soon’ card maybe isn’t always appropriate and you have to be careful bringing flowers into hospitals. 

Visit Not Another Bunch of Flowers for some heart-warming gifts and original alternatives to flowers. One of the reasons this web shop was set up was because when the founder, Anikka Burton, was diagnosed with cancer she got so many flowers she ran out of vases and had to start putting the flowers in pint glasses and saucepans! 

If you still need help figuring out what to say to someone going through cancer treatment or someone who’s just unwell and feeling a bit under the weather, here are our favourite picks of cards that will do the talking for you:

words for a cancer patient cards for a cancer patient what to say to a cancer patient