Cancer etiquette: What you should and shouldn’t say


When a loved one, friend, or coworker is diagnosed with cancer, it’s sometimes awkward to know what to do and say. The natural response might be to offer platitudes and assurances that everything will be okay, but the truth is, you don’t know what that person’s journey holds.

What to Say

What can I do to help?

I can bring you food or I can take you to the doctor—which one would you like me to do?

I would like to give you a hug.

How are you feeling about it?

I love you.

Let’s go for a walk.

Let’s make some good memories.

Tell me more about it.

Let’s go out.

God bless you.

Patients also appreciated receiving “I’m praying for you” cards. Humor in the proper context can help, as can assistance with practical things like meals and grocery shopping. For the most part, patients found comfort in having someone actively listening to them instead of giving them advice. The main thing you can do is to let them know you care, listen carefully, and ask them what you can do to help. 

What not to say

I know how you feel.

If you would just eat [insert food], it would go away.

I understand.

Bless your heart.

Well, at least they got it all.

I’m sorry, sweetie.

It’s all in God’s hands.

Well, it’s just your [insert affected body part].

You need to be strong.

When you get to heaven, tell [insert name] I said hello and I love them.

You need to . . .

Snap out of it.

Think about all those who survived.

Don’t worry about it.

It will grow back.

So you’re cured now.

 Each person’s journey is different. Giving advice or sharing about your Aunt Lucy’s or even your own experience, whether good or bad, is not recommended. It may only add confusion, stress, or hurt feelings.

Charlotte Atkins is the executive director of Cancer Navigators.

Read more: Little Town, Big Idea: Rome’s Cancer Navigators 

This article originally appeared in our 2014 Health issue.