Talking to someone with cancer

Updated 31 Oct 2017.


Everyone's experience of cancer is unique and it can be hard to grasp exactly what someone is going through. It's normal to feel lost for words, no matter how close you are with the person who has cancer. There isn't one perfect script – what you say will depend on your relationship and your own experiences. However, it's important to try and be empathetic and understanding.

To help, we have put together a list of the top 5 things to do and 5 things not to do when speaking to someone with cancer – take a look below:

5 things TO do

1. Ask 'How are you going now?" – try to ask how the person is feeling from time to time throughout their treatment and recovery. Be sure to make time to really listen and respond to their answer.

2. Tell them you're willing to listen – sometimes a caring listener is what the person needs most. If the person wants to talk about what they are going through, give them time to speak, make eye contact and try not to interrupt.

3. Acknowledge life can be unfair – A person with cancer doesn't want to feel blamed or punished. It may help to recognise that sometimes bad things happen to good people.

4. Follow their lead – Some people with cancer don't like to be called a cancer sufferer, battler, victim or survivor. Pay attention to how they refer to themselves and follow suit.

5. Talk about other things too – Although it's important ask how they're feeling, the person with cancer may not want to talk about cancer all the time. It's ok to chat about other things happening in both of your lives.


5 things NOT TO do

1. Offering unsolicited advice – The person with cancer needs to make their own decisions based on the advice of their medical team. If you'd like to share your opinion with the person, ask them if it would be helpful first.

2. Saying clichés or unrealistic assurances – Even though you might mean to be reassuring, saying "don't worry" or "stay positive" can seem dismissive of how the person is feeling. It may also be unrealistic – of course the person may worry, and so might you. It's normal to feel concerned.

3. Pushing particular beliefs – All people have the right to their own beliefs and values, both religious and non-religious. The person with cancer also has the right to make their own decision about treatment and their life.

4. Asking probing questions – The person may not want to tell you about something personal (e.g. their prognosis) and their privacy should be respected.

5. Sharing lots of stories – You may know other friends and family members who have also had cancer, but this person may want to focus on their own health. Every person's situation is different so comparing stories may not always be helpful. It's better to ask first – e.g. "Do you want to hear about I study I read about?"



Listen to our Cancer Information and Support Services Director, Sandy chat with Barry Nicholls from ABC Regional Drive about talking to someone with cancer.

For further info take a look at our 'How can I help' info booklet or contact our Cancer Nurses on 13 11 20.

Found in:  News - 2016 |  News - 2017  | View all news