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 (5)

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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