Talking to someone with cancer

Wednesday 10 November 2021

You might find yourself feeling tongue-tied, unsure of the right words to convey sympathy and offer support.

There are some well-used expressions that you often hear– he lost his battle with cancer, be positive, you’re so strong you can beat this. But for some people, these can be at best unhelpful, at worst upsetting, or even disempowering.

Some of the people who have visited Maggie’s for support have shared their insights.

Liam is living with incurable glioblastoma. "I find it really difficult when someone says, ‘You’re looking well’. I mean, what do they want me to look like, a victim of the Chernobyl disaster? It makes me feel I need to be apologetic for not looking worse."

Tassia finds the ‘fight and battle’ analogies really unhelpful. “It implies I have some form of control over cancer. I don’t. It’s the same as the expression ‘be positive’. No matter how positive I am, secondary cancer has control and no amount of positive thinking is going to change things. I’m not a negative person but I think we need to accept that realism is not the same as pessimism.”

Sajida is living with secondary breast cancer and she agrees that words like ‘warrior’ are really difficult. “It’s such a terrible image - as if I am dressed in a suit of armor fighting what is actually an invisible foe.

I find it aggressive when what I appreciate is the use of gentle language and imagery.

It’s hard because I know people have the best intentions but when they ask you in simpering hushed tones – ‘How ARE you?’ when all you want to do is forget about cancer, it can really irritate. You don’t need to use a different voice to talk to me just because I have cancer.”

Jane said, “Some people think it’s helpful to tell you about their own diagnosis when you tell them about yours.

One friend constantly compared and contrasted her own experience, told me they had been really positive about surgery, treatment and the future, rarely asked me how I felt. It made me feel like I had to think the same way they did and that my own diagnosis wasn’t relevant.

One close family member didn’t say anything, not a text or a card; their partner explained they ‘didn’t want to say the wrong thing’. But the worst thing you can say to someone with cancer is nothing at all.”

How to communicate

Maggie’s psychologist Kate Fulton explains why some language can be unsettling and how best to communicate.

“It’s really interesting hearing Liam, Tassia, Sajida and Jane’s experiences of what they’ve found less helpful.

I think this highlights how deeply individual everyone’s experience of cancer is.

What might be helpful for one person could be really unhelpful for another.

That’s why I tend to begin any conversations with lots of open questions, finding out more about how that person is thinking and feeling about their diagnosis.

Questions such as ‘how are things?’, ‘how are you feeling?’, ‘what has the last week been like?’

I’ll then be careful to use the language they choose to use. This helps them to feel more understood and is a safe way for me to stick to the words and language that most closely align with theirs.

I think it’s very normal to want to try and fix things or make someone feel better. This can lead us to say things like, ‘you look well’, or ‘I’m sure everything will be fine’, which we’ve already heard can be quite unhelpful to hear.

We often underestimate the power of empathy, of just being alongside someone, checking in with how they’re doing and listening to them.”

Jane explained, "What I found most comforting and helpful was the friend who made a note in her diary of all my appointments; who sent me a message or, better still, called every day, just to ask how I was. Those few words and that connection were gold dust."

Here with you

At Maggie’s, we can help you find the right words.

We run support groups for friends and family offering practical advice and tips and where you can share experiences with others who understand what you are feeling.

Find your nearest centre and just come in.

Get cancer support near you

To find your nearest Maggie's centre, enter your postcode or town below.

Sign up for our newsletter

Stay up to date with our news and fundraising by signing up for our newsletter.

Sign up