If someone you know has cancer, you might feel unsure about how to talk to them or how to offer support.

Cancer is a serious illness, but nowadays, many of those who get cancer survive.

If someone's cancer cannot be cured, treatment of the symptoms can greatly improve a person’s quality of life.

Most people who have had cancer say that they don’t know how they would have gotten through it without family and friends' support.

What do I say to someone with cancer?

The most important thing is not what you say but that you’re there for them and you’re willing to listen.

Your friend or family member might not want to talk about their treatment when you visit.

They might prefer to talk about current events, their hobbies, or what you have been doing lately. This can take their mind off the tough stuff and let them think about everyday things that can make them feel more normal.

People with cancer have good and bad days. Try to sense your friend's mood. You can ask what they’d like to talk about and whether it’s the right time to chat or be silent.

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Listening to the person with cancer

You don’t have to know all the answers or even any of them. Just being there and listening is all they may need.

Some tips for listening to your friend:

  • think about what your friend is saying, rather than what you want to say
  • be patient if they may say the same things more than once
  • try not to finish their sentences or change the subject
  • wait for them to stop speaking before you start, but be relaxed enough to allow them to continue if they interrupt you
  • listen to their story and try not to tell the stories of other people you have known with cancer
  • if your friend is angry or frustrated, you can say things like, ‘that sounds hard’, or, ‘I can only imagine', or ‘I’m so pleased you have talked to me about this’
  • it's okay to show your feelings and say things like ‘I find this difficult to talk about’, or, ‘I’m not sure what to say’

Your friend may want to be silent for a while to think about things or to rest. If you can be quiet, this may be the right response as there may not be anything to say.

Ask what you can do

Find out what would be most helpful for your friend. Ask if you can bring them something or do something for them.

  • would they like a regular game of cards, Dominoes, or Scrabble?
  • can you take them anywhere?
  • do their children or their partner need anything done for them?

If you offer to do something, make sure it’s realistic so that you avoid letting your friend down. 

Talk with other people who are supporting your friend and work with them as much as you can. You could use our online platform Support Crew to coordinate this.  

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You can let others know how they can help you with our online tool Support Crew.

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0800 CANCER (226 237) Monday to Friday, 8.30am–5pm

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. We can help you get answers.

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Tips for visiting a person with cancer in hospital

In the hospital, greet your friend as you would normally: take off your coat and pull up a seat.

Try to maintain your friend’s privacy – and that of others. In a hospital ward, this may not be easy, but position yourself so that it’s clear that it’s your friend you have come to see.

Try to avoid being distracted by any conversations and other activities around you unless your friend clearly wants to be involved.

Need someone to talk to?
8:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday
0800 226 237 Information nurse

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have nurses and counsellors to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: July 28, 2021