How to Talk — and Listen — to Someone With Cancer

Improve communication with a friend or loved one with cancer
man comforting scared woman

It can be hard to know how to act, and the right words hard to come by, when you’re in a relationship with someone who has cancer. That’s why as cancer nurses we talk to people about “cancer etiquette.”

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Cancer etiquette is simply interacting with someone with cancer in friendly, empathetic and appropriate ways. It’s showing that you acknowledge what he or she is going through — both physically and emotionally. It’s the awareness that cancer can affect everything in that person’s life.

You should respect, too, that everyone responds differently to events and experiences. People may not respond the way you would — and that’s okay. Accepting this can go a long way in talking with and helping someone you care about who has cancer.

Cancer etiquette: Do’s

With these ideas in mind, here are a few cancer etiquette do’s and don’ts for family and friends of patients.

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  • Do be connected. Simply be there. You don’t have to fill spaces with talk. Your physical presence lets them know you’re there. Silence is okay. It’s okay, too, to say you don’t know what to say.
  • Do listen actively. Give them your full attention and make full eye contact. Never judge what they say; just listen. It often helps to summarize back what they say to be clear and show you’re on the same page.
  • Do help them restore a sense of control in their lives. Encourage them to return to doing the things they enjoy; this can help them get back some of the things they feel they lost. Their world has changed. If it’s possible, it can make all the difference to return to familiar routines — driving, doing chores, shopping.
  • Do apologize if you say something wrong. At one point you’ll likely put your foot in your mouth, which you may sense right away. Or the person may tell you. If so, simply apologize, humbly and without defensiveness.
  • Do imagine trading places. How would you like to be treated if you had cancer? You’d likely want to be treated as you always have been — you’re the same person, after all. You’d like people to not patronize you, but you need them to acknowledge the reality and sometime pain of your situation and treat you with empathy and compassion. You’d want them to listen.
    If you could stand in someone else’s shoes, would you treat them differently?

Cancer etiquette: Don’ts

  • Don’t say “I know exactly how you feel” or compare them to other people you know who’ve had cancer. Every situation is different; you can’t know what they’re dealing with. Their reactions to chemotherapy and other treatment are their own. Saying this negates what they’re feeling, and puts the focus on you.
  • Don’t tell them “you look great!” a well-intentioned remark that may only negate their feelings. They may be struggling inside and not feel great at all. And don’t say, “You’ve really lost weight” in an effort to make them feel good. People going through cancer treatment want to maintain their weight.
  • Don’t say “God never gives you more than you can handle.” You don’t always know where other people are spiritually. You’re imposing your belief system and values. That makes it about you, not them.
  • Don’t tell — ask. Ask them what they need and how you can help. Don’t tell them what you’re going to do to help. Empower them to make the decision, another way to help them restore some control into their lives.

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