What to Say to Someone with Cancer (And What Not to Say)

What to Say to someone with Cancer

What to Say to Someone with Cancer (and What Not to Say)

Oh gosh. At least ten times a week, I get an email informing me of the (wretched!) news that yet another person has been diagnosed with f-bomb cancer. Not just breast cancer. Any kind of cancer. All kinds of cancer. The theme always remains the same. Time and time again, people ask:

What can I say?

What can I do?

What ‘should’ I not do?

Well, I thought I’d (re)share with you the ideas that I’ve had as both a patient and a nurse going through the experience. Here are the “cloudy” questions/comments (you know…the ones that leave room for improvement) and the more pleasing (as a patient, anyway!) Silver Lining things to say.

Speaking on behalf of patients everywhere (if I may), the majority of us know that you all try your best. We really do. Here are just a few better options to express what you are feeling. Thank you in advance for helping to take care of us!

What to say to someone who has CancerWhat to say when someone has CancerWhat do you say to someone who has Cancer

What do you say to someone with Cancer

What to Say to a Person with CancerWhat to say to a friend with Cancer

What Not to Say to Someone with CancerWhat do you Say when Someone has CancerWhat to Say to Someone with Cancer

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  1. Carla says

    I really need some book suggestions for certain family members. I think it would be helpful for them to know what to say and what not to say.

  2. Randy says

    yes, Yes, YES! Since my wife was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforma, grade 4. We’ve heard all the clouds. We have heard some silver linings as well. I’m sorry, “I don’t know what to say” doesn’t cut it. Please excuse the rant, but I’ve been giving myself more permission to say what I feel. I know it’s hard. So is dying. Don’t say nice things to me at the memorial service. Say them to my wife now. She really needs to hear them.

    • silverpen says

      So sorry to hear the news. Remember: you are NOT ALONE. Please keep breathing and take one step at a time. Hopefully the information in this blog will help. Sending my very best wishes to you, Tim.

  3. Barbara says

    Thank you and you are right most people mean well but are so overwhelm tend to either say nothing or fall back on expecting the person to ask for help.

    • silverpen says

      So true, Barbara. I really feel like if people know better that they can do better, especially the people who mean well!
      Happy Thanksgiving! xx

  4. Tammy Z says

    I get o I did not know you have cancer cause you do not look sick.(I have stage IV liver cancer now). I do get the one when I die my breast will still be perky.This is after having breast cancer.

  5. Kris says

    I had a friend tell me time and time again during my breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments (stage III – so I had chemo, surgery and radiation) that she truly believed cancer was caused by stress. I translated that to mean = you brought this upon yourself. I found it very hurtful and still have not really come up with a good comeback to that.

    • silverpen says

      Oh gosh, Kris. I can only imagine how hard that was to hear. Maybe the comeback is to tell your friend just how hurtful and unproductive that comment is. …and to encourage that person to speak to you about more hopeful things. Please take good care!

  6. Pamela says

    Thank you for validating my feelings. I didn't understand my feelings when people would say those things to me and I felt stupid inside for being annoyed or upset by what they said. Makes me glad to see that my reactions where not so out their as I thought. I appreciate you and have shared your writings with many of my friends. (also I must say, your use of humor really got me through my FBC)

    • says

      Absolutely, Pamela. I'm just so sorry that you had those feelings.
      Thank you for your kind words….and for reading and sharing The Silver Pen!
      Take good care,

  7. Pamela Lewis says

    Being a 7 year survivor of breast cancer, with horrible chemo and radiation behind me, I agree wholeheartedly with all those silver lining suggestions. They make so much sense, and it brings back to me some of the 'cloud' things people said to me, thinking they were making me feel better, when actually they made me feel worse. I am new to your site here but would like to follow you more. X

  8. Christine Sofka says

    What a wonderful resource of things to say. I heard much of the left side! I helped people cry and try to understand and I did it without punching them!

  9. Diane says

    Thank you, Hollye for your gentle guidance in refining our behaviors.
    To Paula- once I finished Chemo and was taking the herceptin for a year, I received so many comments….you're so lucky, you're done with Chemo, the herceptin is nothing compared to Chemo. Argh! An interesting conundrum. When I looked sick because of baldness, pale skin, and gaunt, sympathy and support abounded. As my hair grew in and color came back in my cheeks there was a noticeable decrease in outreach. It's not to say I needed anything extra but I was more exhausted from simultanious radiation and herceptin. In fact, I was worse off then than during chemo. I realized that the non-stop muscle twitch in my left eye and intense migraines weren't related to chemo at all once I was "just on herceptin" I'm not saying this to cast judgment on my lovely friends and family. It's impossible to know what is going on with those of us in treatment, so Hollye, your words are a sweet set of suggestions for any phase of a cancer patient's treatment.

  10. Maureen says

    Hi Hollye
    I loved this! I know many people don't know what to say but really WTF how can someone say" at least you found it early". It's cancer. It kills.
    My surgeon felt strongly that although it was invasive ductile high nuclear grade that none of the tests ( bilateral breast MRI mammos and sono ) showed lymph involvement. She was great and offered all options. I was leaning toward bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction but was unsure because what if the lymph nodes and margins were clear? Did I want to tackle the pain? Well, I had the lumpectomy 2 days ago and I have 10 less lymph nodes with the JP drain. Not a SL moment. Really scared of chemo. BC SUCKS.
    Thank God for your outlook and positive perspective. I remind myself constantly to look for the SL s I would otherwise miss. Another SL is I am Glad I have this army of brave strong women to share with. Maureen

    • says

      Indeed, Maureen. Indeed. I am so glad that you are able to find Silver Linings…they don't take away FBC, but they sure do help give balance and perspective. Please take good care!

    • Astra says


      I understand your fears about chemo. I am half way through mine. There have been some downs, but mostly ups. The premeds that you are given help A LOT. Just listen to your body and get rest when it tells you too. Here is my SL to chemo – I have no hair – ANYWHERE! So I am saving a fortune on razors, shampoo and conditioner.

  11. Paula DiPaolo says

    Discovered you this summer after one of my first outings with no hair-I felt great but an acquaintance came up to me in tears! Not a good thing to say/do! Came home and googled "what not to do " and silver lining-up came you! This site has been my guide and lifeline. Finished chemo but herceptin treatment lasts a year- now I get the comments that " you're done!" argh!!

    • says

      Thank you so much, Paula. Wow. What a Silver Lining of my morning.
      Ahhhh, yes, the "You're done" comment. Are we ever?
      Hope this note finds you feeling strong and good.
      Thank you, again!

  12. Sue says

    The comments I hated:
    You're strong. You can get through this.
    If God didn't think you could handle it, he wouldn't have given it to you.
    Or from my (now) ex husband, explaining why he wasn't there to support me:
    I wanted you to do it on your own. I didn't want to treat you any differently.
    (Hmmm, when I had surgery on my ankle years earlier, he was there every second. With cancer, he was cheating on me.)

  13. Carolee Groux says

    So many people say, "I don't know what to say" to a family member or friend who has cancer.
    Thank you for the positive suggestions on exactly what to say to that friend or loved one.