What to say (and not say) when someone tells you they have cancer

Supporting someone with cancer begins with active listening says, Cancer Council’s head of cancer information and support services, Meg Chiswell.

“Learning how to listen involves concentrating on both verbal and non-verbal cues, without judgement and interrupting,” she said. “Just as every cancer experience is different, everyone reacts differently to the experience.

“Family, friends and workplaces all have an important role to play and can provide a comforting presence and offer practical support. Some people fear saying the wrong thing and upsetting people affected by cancer. However, cancer can be isolating and showing your support and keeping in touch is always better than staying away.”

Our support services are 100% funded by people like you. Thanks to you, Cancer Council runs education programs for health professionals, hospitals and community volunteers.

Between 2015 and 2018 Cancer Council ran 244 programs on communication and cancer.

Top Tips

DO

HELPFUL PHRASES

  • Listen actively without judgement
  • Be present, keep eye contact and provide your full attention
  • Notice cues from the person, and respond to these
  • Acknowledge what has been said
  • Offer specific practical support such as cooking meals or transport to an appointment
  • Ask permission to raise sensitive topics
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • If appropriate refer them to Cancer Council’s 13 11 20 information and support services
  • I care for you and I’m here for you
  • If you feel like talking I’m here to listen
  • Many people in a situation like yours would have that reaction
  • It seems reasonable to me to be feeling sad
  • I can hear it has been really hard for you to share, thank you for sharing
  • You’ve been going through a really tough time
  • I’m always here if you’d like to talk. I also know Cancer Council has cancer nurses you could speak to. Could I give you their number?

DON’T

UNHELPFUL PHRASES

  • Appear too positive or make light of the situation
  • Make comparisons with other cancer experiences by sharing stories of others
  • Share the latest cancer research or treatments you’ve heard about - ask permission before making suggestions
  • It’s ok to show your emotions, but don’t overwhelm or burden them with your feelings or grief
  • Withdraw, avoid contact or stay away for fear of burdening them

 

  • I know just how you feel
  • I know just what you should do
  • I know someone who had the same diagnosis
  • Don’t worry
  • I’m sure you’ll be fine
  • You’re strong you can beat this
  • How long do you have?

 

 

If you or someone you know is affected by cancer and is in need of information and support, call our compassionate cancer nurses on 13 11 20.

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