How to Talk to Someone with Cancer
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Published on April 06, 2021

concerned young woman talks to friend in coffeeshop

How to Talk to Someone with Cancer

Talking to someone who has cancer can be intimidating. While we want to support them, what if we say something wrong and make the person feel worse?

“Personalities are an important starting point, because for every person who shares their entire cancer journey on social media, there’s another who is quiet about what they face,” said Brenda Ling, MSW, Outpatient Oncology Therapist at Avera Cancer Institute. “The same simple approach applies to those of us who want to help and support them – be, tangibly present and listen actively.”

She said supportive friends and coworkers of cancer patients should be proactive – in lending aid and offering care. But never assume anything. Here are her tips on what to say – and what not to say – to someone with cancer.

Start Simple

“Something as simple as ‘I’m thinking of you’ with a nice follow-up the next day or the following week is a great way to start,” Ling said.

Be Intentional

Set reminders. Call and call another time if you don’t get through. Go visit – being there for someone can take many forms.

Listen More, Talk Less

If you don’t know what to say – say that. Realize the person you’re supporting has a team of care professionals. They might just want you nearby because they care about you, not to solve any problems.

Avoid Comparisons

“When we try to help, we can too often apply what we know, make comparisons or try to ‘explain’ things,” Ling said. “Even if your coworker has the same cancer your father-in-law faced, the situations are completely different. Don’t try to draw direct lines between what you’ve experienced and their own cancer reality.”

Ask Their Point Person

Often, patients designate someone who is their “support manager.” Perhaps a spouse or adult child. That person can often help you understand needs, wants and how you can help lift the patient’s spirits.

“You can talk to that ‘point person’ and see if there are ways you can most help, such as leading up an effort to write supportive notes for the person,” said Ling. “The best plan is to meet the patient where they are – being there for them, even if you make a mistake or say something wrong, is much better than withdrawing and saying or doing nothing.”

Find Helpful Resources

Ling recommends a book to anyone who wants to be an ally to a cancer patient is “Help Me Live, Revised: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know” by author Lori Hope.

Your loved one’s care facility may also offer resources. For instance, Avera Cancer Institute Navigation Center offers 24/7 assistance to people with cancer and loved ones who have questions or need help.

Know Your Own Limits

If it gets to be too much, be honest. Acknowledge you’re still learning and growing, while assuring the patient that you care.

Ling said one reason people fear saying the wrong thing is they have their own issues and fears when it comes to cancer and other diseases that can be fatal. To be there for someone might mean reevaluating yourself.

We’ve all clammed up in a situation that overwhelmed us. Don’t do that with people who have cancer. “You can listen, you can love and you can be there,” Ling said.

To learn more about outpatient therapy services offered to cancer patients and loved ones, call Avera Medical Group Integrative Medicine at 605-322-3241 or the Avera Cancer Navigation Center at 605-322-3211.

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