Wellbeing

What to Say to Someone with Cancer

When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, it’s hard to know what to say. Sadly, this sometimes translates into saying nothing at all.

To show our support for cancer patients, we have to speak up. We asked our community to share words of encouragement that helped them through their battle. They offered some amazing suggestions.

If you’re struggling to find the right words, here are 12 kind things to say to someone with cancer:

  • “Bald is beautiful.”
  • “I’m so proud of your strength.”
  • “I pray for you every day.”
  • “This stinks.”
  • “How can I help you?”
  • Tell a joke.
  • “You are not alone.”
  • “Any time you need to talk, I’ll listen.”
  • “What day works for a visit?”
  • “You’ve got this!”
  • “This doesn’t define you.”
  • “Did you see the latest episode?”

1. “Bald is beautiful.”

If undergoing chemotherapy, your loved one may lose their hair during treatment. This is a very emotional process and feeling confident could be a challenge at first. This is a great opportunity for you to make sure they know they still look amazing, beautiful and strong.

“I have a friend who was going thru the same journey I was. When we both lost our hair, he would walk up to me and tell me that and give me a kiss on the head. His wife later told me that when he started doing it to her several times a day, it made her feel more comfortable.”

Beth Shumate Chapman

2. “I’m so proud of your strength.”

Even if you’ve never had cancer, you can still appreciate how hard your loved one is fighting every day. Give them the recognition they deserve with this simple phrase. It might be just the thing they need to push through the day.

3. “I pray for you every day.”

Hearing this can be a great comfort, and the act of praying may be very peaceful for you as well. If you or your loved one aren’t religious, it’s still helpful to hear someone is sending you good vibes daily.

“My BFF has been fighting cancer for two years & I mail a card each week with uplifting sentiments. I remind her how much she means to me & how proud I am of her strength & faith. I always tell her I’m praying for her journey.”

GiGi Gardner

4. “This stinks.”

Cancer stinks. Sometimes, validating that for someone who has to go through it every day is all that needs to be said in the moment.

5. “How can I help you?”

This is one of the most helpful things you can say. Treatment, doctor’s appointments and physical symptoms make it difficult to keep up with day-to-day life. Make sure your loved one knows that everything will be taken care of. Their focus should be on healing, not worrying.

“Prepare meals, help with laundry, cleaning and give gifts to help with things to purchase.”

MaryAnn Lansky Bunjevac

6. Tell a Joke

After all, laughter is the best medicine.

“Chemo nurse says, ‘Well how ya doing today except for the cancer?’ She always made me laugh and we would go on to other funny stories that always lifted the spirits!”

Sharyn Herian

7. “You are not alone.”

Cancer can feel isolating. Make sure your loved one knows that everyone who loves them is with them on their health journey. They are not fighting this battle alone.

8. “Any time you need to talk, I’ll listen.”

Having someone there to listen is enormously helpful for someone with cancer. They’re experiencing a lot of emotions, so it’s good to offer an outlet for whatever they want to talk about.

9. “What day works for a visit?”

Humans are social creatures. We thrive off personal interactions, especially with those who we feel comfortable around. During this difficult time, it’s crucial to show your support by planning regular visits. This will give your friend or family member a sense of community and help them feel like things are more normal.

“Initially, when my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – his friends came around and visited. Further into this disease they stopped coming. My wish is that they still continued to come visit, even if he wasn’t interacting with them. My dad still needed the support and love and care of his friends. I would just go sit with my dad and read to him (even if he snoozed) or talk to him about stuff…even mundane stuff because it helps him to not be alone and to have some sense of “normality” in his illness.”

Susan Blair

10. “You’ve got this.”

A little motivation goes a long way. Pump your loved one up. Make them feel powerful. They will appreciate you bringing the positivity despite a negative situation.

11. “This doesn’t define you.”

Cancer has a way of feeling all-encompassing. Those affected may feel like their identity revolves around being a cancer patient. That is simply not true. Your loved one is so much more than someone who has cancer. They could be a dog-lover, artist, parent… Help them focus on all their amazing traits that have nothing to do with their illness.

12. “Did you see the latest episode?”

This isn’t a specific saying—it’s a reminder to talk about something else other than cancer. Cancer patients spend plenty of time discussing treatment, symptoms and prognosis. Your loved one will appreciate those who can find something brighter to talk about. Whatever topic you choose, getting their mind off their illness will be refreshing.

Show Love with Actions, Too

A care package is worth 1,000 words. Another way to show support is with a thoughtful gift or helping out with tasks. Check out these gift ideas for cancer patients for a little inspiration.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: it is tough to know what to say to someone with cancer. Use these 12 encouraging phrases to show how much you care without struggling to find the right words. And if you have any additional ideas, please share them. We’d love to hear what words have helped you. 

Comments (41)

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D. DiManno Sep 12, 2019 3:55pm
Please don't assume that everyone who has cancer wants to hear the same thing. What may be comforting to one person may be offensive or insensitive to another. (I'm particularly uncomfortable with "You've got this," I'm praying for you," "This doesn't define you," and "Bald is beautiful." While others may find them meaningful and helpful, many do not. And telling a joke? Wow ... be careful about the timing and the situation. (And with all due respect, and experience, five years is a pretty arbitrary measure. Please don't be lulled into thinking anyone is ever really "cancer free.") Let's be upbeat and positive and hopeful ... and realistic.
laura thor Sep 12, 2019 1:06pm
I like most of these well-wishes, but I've always recoiled at "you've got this!" Perhaps because until someone's been 5 years cancer-free, no, no one's got this. YGT sounds like a false promise to make the wisher comfy but leaves the hearer lonely. Bc they don't feel like they've 'got this'. (What does that even mean?)
Donna Patterson. Sep 12, 2019 8:39am
I’m a Christian and appreciate you sharing this with me. I believe every prayer kills one cancer cell. Keep praying for us. 🙏✝️🙏😇
JennyB Sep 11, 2019 11:04am
I have had one of the chronic leukemias for 13 years, and I went through treatment 10 years ago (and will probably need treatment again sooner rather than later). Most casual acquaintances (work colleagues) didn't know I was going through treatment - I didn't lose my hair, never missed work (except for my treatment days) and I didn't lose any weight (I gained . . . and I blame chocolate covered raisins). I didn't think I was being strong - I was just being me. It wasn't until just this year that one of my sisters told me how much she admired my strength. It meant the world to me!
K Welch Sep 10, 2019 6:33pm
I'm a atheist, so when someone says, I'll pray for you, I could interpret it as being meaningless. However, to me, prayer and good thoughts are a form of energy, and knowing that a person is sending energy my way can be very powerful. So I accept that they are sending me positive energy, and simply say"Thank you." And by the way, not everyone believes or accepts the same thing, so it's very hurtful to hold one's own beliefs as being the Truth. Compassion encourages acceptance, even if someone doesn't share your strongly held beliefs. Each person finds the path that is right for them.
Sheila Sep 10, 2019 6:15pm
Thank you for this. Very useful and encouraging.
Carol Eden Sep 10, 2019 8:42am
I’m a cancer warrior. These are good ideas however instead of “how can I help?”, say “I’d like to bring dinner over next week. What is the best day and time?” It can be fried chicken from a restaurant or a simple meal. It doesn’t have to be a 5 course meal. Or say, “I will come clean your house for you or have my housekeeper come clean once for you . When is a good time? “. “When is your next appointment? I’ll take you”. I had many people say they would be glad to help, and they meant it. It’s just very hard for me to call someone and ask. If a person says these things to someone fighting cancer then you know what specific they are willing to help you with.
M. O’Keeffe Sep 09, 2019 10:06pm
If I could beat my cancer, U can too. U’ve ALWAYS been a lot tougher than I ever was......we’ll fight it TOGETHER, my friend.....
Kathy Sep 09, 2019 9:30am
I am a Double Mastectomy Breast Cancer Survivor. Waiting on Biopsy for melanoma outcome as I write. I appreciate all the suggestions that have been mentioned previously. What has empowered me the most was a sister survivor teaching me a way to battle daily, visually and metaphorically. Think of your cancer and your problems like you are carrying a BIG Old Santa Bag around on your back.....Oh it is so heavy. Like Santa delivering presents under the tree, reach in there....and pull each one out. Empty the Bag as much as you can. EMPTY YOUR BURDEN BAG DAILY!! Same with people, living, daily, financial, and cancer struggles. The smallest things in a day can be monumental. Decide where you want to be and what makes you feel whole, what is best for you. Do you want to be on the Struggle Bus today??? or do you Want to Get Off the Struggle Bus Today??? Then visualize getting on up and leaving those Struggles on the Bus!! Get OFF at the next STOP......even just for a Day......so you can heal, so you can find comfort in self love!! So for me - Learning how to Empty my Burden Bag & Learning how to Get off the Struggle Bus made of world of difference in kicking cancer to the curb!!!!! It LIGHTENS the sickness and hard times and BRIGHTENS the Goodness!!!..... and reminds us to Cherish the Great Moments we have! I picture
Joyce Meakins Sep 08, 2019 5:14pm
I would love to have a copy of this to share, maybe make some copies for my friends in my Cancer Group, we meet once a month. Sincerely, Joyce Meakins
Judy Gibson Sep 06, 2019 5:45pm
I'm sorry that some people feel that they must mention prayer, faith etc. Of COURSE such things are very important, to so many people...and yet, really, a person's beliefs are so private. Unless the patient himself/herself raises the subject people should avoid sounding preachy. I have had experience with a dozen people who over the years of my life were dying of something or other, sometimes a dreadful incurable illness, at other times, simply the complications of old age; and a few, as the result of a horrific accident. I spent time with them in their final days if they showed that they wanted to see me; and, generally, all of them did. So...yes, I told jokes; I said how amazing their courage was, and reminded them that life is not ended by death, it merely continues in another form. That is scientific truth. Where do plants get their strength? From the soil. What is it composed of? Decaying organic matter, and mineral elements from the planet, and sunlight, and water. We are part of all this. We nurture the future beings and so we continue to exist. We are related to all other living species, with the abilities of five senses and another sense of which some of us know a little...and even a lot. That is what is called 'intuition' or the sixth sense; for example, sensing when one is in danger. So if you want to comfort someone you care about, find out whether they would rather that you sit quietly with them...or sing to them or play a musical instrument; or talk about a book you both loved, a person you loved, etc. Be quiet if they wish you to be. Leave after a very brief visit if you are exhausting them. But for goodness sake do not preach, nor argue. Tell them that you will be thinking of them often as they go on this last journey, and touch them lovingly on the had or on the top of their head, with gentle touch. When you say goodbye, say, "Don't be afraid, because you weren't afraid when you were born, and none of us had control over that time either!" If you say that with a smile, they will be reassured. Death is simply a tallying up of all the moments we lived; a chance for the universe to find a place for us as part of the new journey. Don't hog the small amount of time a person near death has to spend time with others he or she loves; leave with love, and say your prayers to yourself.
Allan Bartelt Sep 06, 2019 11:17am
Very sad to read ..... "I'm praying for you, To me this equates with " I'm doing nothing for you". For those that do pray, we all know that "Praying is doing everything for you" . You can still feed the dogs and clean the kitchen but prayer has the most impact.
Allan Bartelt Sep 06, 2019 10:59am
Very sad to read Lori C's comment dated Aug 26th on "I'm praying for you" stating that is "doing nothing for you". Although many will say that and don't actually pray for the afflicted person, for everyone that know the healing power of prayer will know that praying is "doing everything for you."
Betsy Schlesinger Sep 06, 2019 8:11am
Don’t ask what you can do to help. Just saying you’re going to Wegmans (or where) and ask what they need. If you pray, pray. But don’t be public. Not all people do. Do say, “You got this,” when the person may not. Take your cue from the person. Ask them how THEY are feeling and go from there. Most important, be there for them. You don’t have to be cheerful all the time. Or have all the answers. There may not always be answers. Just be there, listen, and take your cues from your friend or loved one.
rita bock Sep 05, 2019 7:06pm
Short visits 🙏. Paint nails/trim Bring a hairdresser over. New PJ’s Favorite cookies Favorite breakfast A walk if able or just sit outside!
Karin L Petersen Sep 05, 2019 12:24pm
This was "heaven sent". Today our family friend went in for a double mastectomy. Our God is always helping us cope with the challenges faced in life. Yes, as your comment said, we are never alone. Thank you for sharing this list.
Elizabeth Huber Sep 05, 2019 7:11am
Thank you. That helped
Lynn Pentecost Sep 04, 2019 4:02pm
Thinking of you.
David Black Sep 04, 2019 7:29am
I mean "You've got this!" (Just to clarify that I read it correctly and think it's a terrible idea.)
David Black Sep 04, 2019 7:28am
"You got this!" is utterly inappropriate. Terrible idea.
John M White, Jr Sep 04, 2019 7:13am
The southern tradition of "comfort food" works too: The roast, cake, pan of rolls, etc. comforts the recipient as a token of caring and doesn't require a lot of words on the part of the giver. The giver is comforted by giving.
Anne Spooner Crowe Sep 03, 2019 9:09am
Bald is beautiful is a poor comment unless you know how someone feels about their hair. I could have cared less but to some it’s their pride and joy. The comments like this doesn’t define you, etc are meaningless unless the “sayer” has had cancer. Offer any assistance, to coordinate meals, etc all worthwhile. The rest seemed ill-thought out. ( I am 4 yrs remission from Follicular DIffuse Large B-Cell NHL)
Christine Sep 03, 2019 7:40am
Do NOT say « Cancer stinks ». Cancer is a dreadfully smart disease , it needs to be treated with intelligence and dedication. Not to be liken to garbage...
Marti Biegler Sep 02, 2019 9:49am
I am currently recovering from a bilateral mastectomy. I am extremely fortunate that I don't need either chemo or radiation and only AI pills. I have some amazing friends that just say, "I'm coming over" and we ended up for hours on my deck just talking about random things. Humor is awesome as well. When I went into a very cold classroom for inservice week, I made the comment, "It's cold enough to freeze my tits off...oops, too late!" It's ok to laugh about it yourself as well.
Helena Worthen Sep 01, 2019 11:41am
I did chemo for breast cancer in Chicago in the summer -- that means, it was hot, hot, and no way I was going to put a wig on my head. So I went bald. It was time to experience what hardcore youth were looking like, anyway. Now, I'm a white woman in my sixties. The nicest thing people said to me was, "Good looking head!" and this was especially friendly when it was a Black man (usually a guy in his 50's or 40's, in a business suit but with a shaved head himself) would smile and say, "Looking good," or something like that. I really loved that. This would happen just crossing the street or walking towards me down Michigan Ave.
Emily W Zopf Sep 01, 2019 11:26am
Tell me what you appreciate about me. Help me focus on the good in my life not just the cancer.
Sam Hashizu Sep 01, 2019 9:12am
This is not a death sentence. Actively pursue alternative cures such as focusing on feeling happy ever moment in time. Be totally in the place of appreciation, gratitude and have great attitudes Read the story of Joe Dispenza via Youtube and follow his instructions.
Barbara Dingmann Aug 28, 2019 7:54pm
Caring Bridge is a wonderful way to communicate. From 2004-2008 I had a website. I had 3-Primary Cancers and 6- Major Surgeries during this period of time. Thank's to God, The Mayo and My Husband I am here today!
Rev. Caren Loper Aug 27, 2019 8:17am
I was blessed with friends who when I shared I was going to shop for a wig, said, we want to buy it for you! Another friend drove me to my appointment in her BMW and cheered me on! The wig I chose matched my hair color and was a bit shorter. I had my beautician shave my head three weeks into chemo just as my hair began to fall out. I wore my beautiful, professional looking wig from that day forward in public and scarves at home if cooking in the kitchen. Getting up, dressed, makeup, and going to my office each day gave my life purpose and helped me to keep positive.(yes, I had days after chemo when I couldn’t get out of bed, except to go vomit.) As a pastor with a busy schedule, I asked my congregation for prayer and Pom Pom Cheers!(not just for me, but for each person in the community as everyone is fighting some kind of battle.) They loved it and that is what they did! I received from a person, a cancer surviver’s wife, a basket filled with self care items.(mints, pedicure items, clack out mask for sleeping, lotion for my skin, a boa (for fun), a joke book, and the list goes on.) I giggled and laughed as I pulled each item out of the basket!! I received thinking of you cards and notes. It has been a journey I would not wish on anyone, but I was blessed to be surrounded with prayer and Pom Pom cheers! I’m now retired and living cancer free and feeling richly blessed!!!!
Lori Christiansen Aug 26, 2019 1:52pm
Agree with most but the "I'm praying for you" To me this equates with " I'm doing nothing for you" as I don't believe in religion or any gods. Tell me you will feed my dogs, or clean my kitchen or do my laundry. These are things that I will be unable to do! Help me with actions, not prayers.
Susan Teshu Aug 23, 2019 8:08am
As a cancer patient, I do not like when people praise me for being strong or tell me you've got this because it makes me feel like I can't show you how I am when I am not feeling strong. And having had no evidence of disease and then having a recurrence, I am very wary of optimistic language. Cancer sucks is always true for me. It also doesn't help me much to hear that you or someone else survived many years of cancer because even though we both have kidney cancer, mine has metastasized. I know that people always mean well, but I don't like to have to translate. Unless someone knows me very well, I wish you the very best is the best thing to say to me.
Jane E Hewett Aug 04, 2019 6:46pm
I’ve had breast cancer twice. I’m also a nurse in PICU & worked during all of my treatments both times - chemo & radiation. Since I only wore a bandana on my head, plenty of people in my large hospital knew I had cancer. The most uplifting people said to me, whether they knew me or not, was “Hi/Hey/GoodMorning/etc. How are you doing today?” It always made me smile in return & say, “I’m good, ThankYou!” I wish they all knew how it helped me thru those work days!
Tom Dowd Jul 24, 2019 1:51pm
Well, I'm a 23 year survivor of all the horrors of cancer treatment. Took about a year out of my life. I like the joke part. I really needed to laugh, because it was tough to find much funny about the whole situation. Had a nurse like the one mentioned who knew all the right things to say.
KM Jul 16, 2019 7:23pm
How about simply starting with ,"How can I help you?" Or ask if the person would like to chat about things. And before you offer prayers, make sure you have some understanding of the person's religious beliefs.
Sue Jul 09, 2019 8:07am
‘I love you’. There were days when I felt like a burden to my family. The surgeries, the trips to the doctor for reconstruction when I couldn’t drive due to medications... to hear that they still loved me on days I didn’t love myself very much.
Susan Lane Jul 03, 2019 3:33pm
I hate ‘you’ve got this. Like if I die it’s my fault
holly gleason May 25, 2019 5:08am
I think that validation is huge ... having lost my son to cancer, I was in the room when his Hospice Pastor visited many times ... he was about Scot's age and I clearly remember him saying to Scot: "Hey man, this really sucks ... I cannot imagine what you are experiencing. We are the same age bro and I can totally relate. If you want to talk about anything at all, I'm here for you. " I could tell by Scot's face (he had no speech that day) that it hit the right cord. Say anything that is sincere and loving ... just do not go silent! Thanks for the article.
Kathy Reed May 19, 2019 5:54pm
I wouldn't want anyone to say to me bald is beautiful. I hated it & wore a wig. You are not alone & call me if you need anything I didn't like either. I'm to sick to reach out. If anyone is sick, reach out do something. Send a card, make a meal. Everything is appreciated!
Beverly Dean May 18, 2019 1:03pm
A friend who happened to be a nurse practitioner put her arm around me and said “This is a bump in your road of life”. I don’t know if it lightened my fears at the time but that one sentence kept coming back to me and calmed me through my successful surgeries 6 years ago.
Thea S. Mar 16, 2019 11:01am
Instead of placing the burden of decision on the patient or their caregiver, offer specific options of things to do. For example: may I come over and fold the laundry (or: change the linens, clean out the refrigerator, bring teas for when visitors come, read to the patient while you nap).
Barbara W. Mar 12, 2019 1:18pm
Wonderful suggestions, thank you