What to Say and Do when Someone is Diagnosed with Cancer

When my aunt Sherry was diagnosed with breast cancer I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say to her that might make her feel better, happier, or make the situation better. There were even times when I thought that I shouldn’t call her because I didn’t want to bother her, but if I’m being honest, I just felt so bad for her and her 4-year-old son, that I was just terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing.

Since then, I have spent time reading books like the one pictured above (sold on Amazon) and researched the “etiquette” when someone is diagnosed with cancer. If you know of anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, you may want to review these quick tips on what to do and say and what not to do and say. It’s times like these when we want to put our best foot forward and make sure that we are as empathetic and sensitive as we should be to help our friends and loved ones.

What TO Say

Even if you’re not sure what to say to the person, you do need to say something. Avoiding them or just assuming they know how you feel isn’t enough.

The best advice in this situation is to say how you feel. If you’re thinking about them, if you care about them, if you are sorry for what they are going through, then say any or all of that. Also, take your cue from how the person is acting and what they are saying. A person with cancer might have times where they are feeling optimistic and only want to hear positive things, or they might be feeling blue and just want to cry and vent and have you listen.

Here are a few conversation starters:

  • I am here if you want to talk.
  • I would like to help in any way I can.
  • Are you up for having visitors?
  • Is there anyone else you would like me to contact?
  • This must be a hard thing to go through.

What NOT to Say

  • Don’t make it about you or compare it to something you have been through.
  • Don’t tell them stories of others who have had cancer. They don’t need to know the good or the bad stories. This just takes away from what they are going through.
  • If they don’t want to talk, don’t force the issue. Just let them know that you available when and if they want to.
  • Don’t say bad things about their doctor, the hospital, or anything else that they cannot change.
  • Avoid saying things that minimize what the patient is going through such as “Don’t worry,” “Everything is going to be okay” or “Cheer up.”
  • Even if you believe the person’s lifestyle choices (i.e., smoking) have contributed to them getting cancer, you do not need to bring that up.
  • Do not say that it’s “God’s will” or that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” They might not be as religious as you are, and even if they are, this may not bring them comfort.
  • That you know of other people with their same diagnosis who lived or died. It can belittle their feelings or make them feel worse.
  • Any sentence that starts with, “You should…”. They have enough on their plate and do not need to be burdened with anything you think they should do. Even if you think they should be seeking out another doctor or protocol, you need to first ask them if they want your input on the topic. Then, just present the information and do not tell them what to do.

What You Can Do to Help

Showing someone you care is as important as saying it. Below are some things you can do to show your support when someone is diagnosed with cancer.

  • Prepare some meals for their fridge or freezer. Provide them with fancy paper plates so they don’t need to worry about cleaning up.
  • Start a “Make Them a Meal” sign-up and share it with the person’s friends, neighbors, and family members to help coordinate meals to be brought to the person.
  • Actively listen to the person when they are speaking and encourage them to continue if you sense they want or need to talk.
  • Send cards to let them know you are thinking about them.
  • Send flowers or gifts to the person’s home or hospital room to lift their spirits.
  • Offer to care for their pets or children. Driving kids to their sports and activities can really be helpful and something you can do weekly.
  • Mow their lawn or shovel their sidewalk.
  • Run errands for them.
  • Offer to do some of their household chores such as washing the dishes, vacuuming or doing laundry. Consider a gift certificate for a cleaning service.
  • Offer to provide transportation to appointments.
  • Prepare a chemo care package they can bring with them for appointments or treatments.


For more etiquette advice and tips and a list of children’s etiquette classes please go to my website FinesseWorldwide.com.




Aimee Symingtonhttp://Finesseworldwide.com
Aimee is the CEO of Finesse Worldwide, and an etiquette expert with almost 20 year's experience teaching etiquette to adults and children throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Aimee has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, and she regularly shares her etiquette advice on Charlotte Today, Fox News, and WBTV, on radio programs such as NPR, and in newspapers and national magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Woman's Health. Ms. Symington is also the creator of the award-winning, nationally acclaimed products on manners for children called “Blunders®” and “Manner Mats®” For more etiquette tips for adults and children, please visit her website at FinesseWorldwide.com. Connect on Facebook.