How to Support a Loved One With Cancer

Posted on July 11, 2022 in Tips

Written by Wittlinger, Claire E.

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Finding out that a close friend or family member has cancer can be incredibly unnerving. You may experience a range of strong emotions such as shock, guilt, sadness, anxiety, and even anger. These emotions can make it hard to know what to do to help your loved one feel supported. 

Unsure of how to interact with your friend or family member, you may be tempted to withdraw from them. But they need you now more than ever before. Countless studies indicate that social support is correlated with positive treatment outcomes for cancer patients. It also improves their quality of life and mental health. 

In this blog, we discuss how you can help and encourage your loved one with cancer. Of course, these are merely suggestions. You should always tailor your support based on the relationship you have with your friend or family member.

How to Talk to Someone With Cancer

In the wake of a friend or family member’s cancer diagnosis, you may not know what to say. You may not know how to bridge the topic of their disease or how to react if they seem angry or hopeless. However, staying in touch — whether through phone calls, texts, or in-person visits — is always better than becoming distant. 

Keep reading for suggestions on what to say and what not to say during these interactions.


What To Say

The best tip for talking to someone with cancer is to listen. 

As they talk, show support through body language and facial expressions. Maintain eye contact, nod your head, and definitely avoid texting or checking email. 

When you do speak, choose words that are honest and heartfelt. Consider these responses: 

  • “I’m always here if you want to talk.”
  • “I’m not sure what to say, but please know how much I care.”
  • “I know staying positive can be hard. How are you really?”
  • “I can’t imagine how you feel.”
  • “What can I do for you?”
  • “I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”
  • “If you would like to talk about it, I’m here.”
  • “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”

Though you never want to make light of your loved one’s diagnosis, you can incorporate humor into your conversations. After all, a good laugh can relieve pent-up stress and help the interaction feel more natural. Just let your friend or family member take the lead. If they crack a joke about chemo-related weight gain, do not be afraid to join in. 


What Not To Say

You would never hurt your friend or family member’s feelings on purpose. However, you may say something dismissive or insensitive without even knowing it.

To avoid offending your loved one, steer clear of these general phrases:

  • “You’re so strong.” For some people with cancer, this is an encouraging comment. However, for others, it is confining. It may make them feel like breaking down is not okay.
  • “You look really pale.” Avoid any comments about your loved one’s appearance. They likely know that they have lost weight or that their hair is beginning to thin. They may even be embarrassed by these changes. 
  • “I’m sure you’ll be fine.” While it is good to be encouraging, false optimism can discount your loved one’s very valid fears and concerns.  
  • “When (fill in name) had cancer, (fill in the blank) happened.” It is usually not best to recount another person’s cancer story. Even though you are trying to be helpful, your friend or family member may misinterpret your good intentions. 
  • “I know how you feel.” Even if you are a cancer survivor, you do not know exactly how your loved one is feeling. Since everyone is different, this statement can belittle your friend or family member’s diagnosis.  

You should also avoid asking too many questions, especially about their prognosis. Again, let your friend or family member take the lead. If they want to discuss their cancer treatment plan or side effects, be attentive. But if they want to talk about something completely unrelated, that is okay too.

What To Do if You Feel Uncomfortable

Watching a loved one’s health decline can make you uneasy, prompting thoughts about mortality — both theirs and yours. When faced with these feelings, some people disappear. This fairly prevalent phenomenon, which is called “cancer ghosting,” is experienced by 65 percent of cancer patients. 

Your loved one deserves better. Cancer is a very isolating diagnosis to live with and your friend or family member needs a strong support system. It is okay if you say the wrong things or get emotional. Your friend or family member will just appreciate you being there. 

If you feel uncomfortable around your friend or family member with cancer, consider:

  • Saying so. Address the elephant in the room with transparency. Tell your loved one that you do not know what to talk about or how to bridge the topic of their diagnosis. 
  • Talking to a professional. If you are struggling to cope with strong emotions like anxiety and sadness, consider consulting a mental health professional like a counselor or psychologist.
  • Joining a support group. Sharing your thoughts with other people who are going through a similar experience can be very cathartic. Support groups can help you feel less isolated and more in control of your emotions.

How to Respect the Privacy of Someone With Cancer

It is common for people with cancer to hide their diagnosis. They may tell their nuclear family and best friends but otherwise keep it a secret. 

There are many reasons why someone would opt for cancer confidentiality, such as:

  • Not wanting to burden friends
  • Fearing judgment for cancers linked to lifestyle choices (i.e. lung cancer after smoking)
  • Hoping to avoid awkward conversations
  • Not wanting to jeopardize their career 
  • Seeking control when life feels out of control

You should never tell another person that your loved one has cancer unless they give you permission to share the news. This is their story to tell; honor their privacy. If someone asks you about your friend or family member’s diagnosis, simply say: “I appreciate your concern, but it’s probably better if you asked them directly.”

What You Can Do To Help

After learning that your friend or family member has cancer, you may wonder what you should do. You might have a special gift in mind or plans for a Netflix night. Or, you might be at a complete loss for how you can support them. 

If you are not sure how to express encouragement and love, here are some suggestions to consider: 


Notes and Calls

The worst thing you can do is go silent when a loved one tells you he or she has cancer. Even if you are afraid of saying the wrong thing, continue communicating with them. 

  • Send frequent texts. Your messages do not need to be long. “How’re you doing today?” or “Thinking of you this morning” is a good place to start.  
  • Schedule phone calls. Even if your loved one is not working during treatment, their schedule is still busy with radiotherapy treatments, oncology consultations, and other medical appointments. Set a time to call and talk via phone. And, if your friend or family member is too tired to talk, be understanding.
  • Mail a card. Though snail mail may feel unfashionable, it can be exciting to receive a card or letter. You may even tuck a gift card, movie list, homemade bookmark, or photograph into the envelope.



One of the best things you can do for your loved one is be there. Even if you just spend an hour or two watching television after work, they will appreciate the company.

  • Avoid drop-in visits. Though swinging by unannounced may be convenient for you, it can be very inconvenient for people with cancer. They may be tired after a chemotherapy session or they may simply not feel like chatting. That is why you must always call before stopping by.
  • Help the caregiver. Visiting can also provide your loved one’s caregiver with relief too. Try to arrange a visit during which the caregiver can get out of the house for a few hours, either to run errands or to get some alone time.
  • Be understanding. Cancer is a very unpredictable disease. Nausea, dizziness, pain, fatigue, and other symptoms can quickly intensify. You should always be understanding if your loved one cancels at the last minute or if they ask you to leave sooner than expected.



Gifts help your loved one know you are thinking of them. However, these tokens of appreciation do not need to be expensive or fancy. Rather, opt for something small and useful.

Some gift ideas include:

  • Subscriptions to streaming services (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, Spotify)
  • Favorite snacks or candies 
  • Books — choose some from their favorite genre 
  • Crossword and word search puzzles
  • Soft or silly pajamas
  • Framed photographs 
  • Self-care items like face masks and lotion 


Errands and Projects

Handling day-to-day chores like grocery shopping and vacuuming can be very challenging for someone with cancer. Help by offering to drop off mail at the post office, pick up prescriptions, or drive their kids to soccer practice. 

  • Make a list. Sit down with your loved one and write a to-do list. Organize this to-do list based on recurring chores and one-off projects. Then, assign tasks to friends, family members, coworkers, and neighbors.
  • Cook freezer meals. Food is key to staying healthy while undergoing cancer treatment. Do some research on the best foods for cancer patients and then prepare meals in bulk. Place these meals in freezer-friendly containers so that your loved one can easily microwave his or her dinner.
  • Offer to babysit. Receiving cancer treatment is hard. But receiving cancer treatment while raising a child is almost impossible. Offer to babysit your loved one’s son or daughter for a weekend every month. You can make these weekends fun by planning camping trips, movie nights, and other activities.


Care For the Caregiver

Depending on your loved one’s condition, he or she may have a caregiver. Oftentimes, this person is a spouse, parent, child, or close friend who, in addition to looking after their loved one, must work a full-time job. Needless to say, your friend or family member’s caregiver may need a break.

  • Provide respite care. Offer to stay with your loved one for an afternoon or even an entire weekend. This will allow their caregiver to recharge. 
  • Take on recurring projects. The best gift you can give is your time. Sit down with your loved one’s caregiver and ask what you can do each week to help. They may ask that you handle laundry, mow the grass, or mop the floors.
  • Plan a fun night. Caregiving is one of the most emotionally exhausting things a person can do. Ease the stress by arranging a fun outing for the caregiver. Get reservations at a fancy restaurant, buy tickets for a sporting event or musical performance, or even book a luxurious hotel room where they can relax.

Why Your Loved One Needs You

Since 1977, SERO has provided the Charlotte Metro areas with world-class radiation oncology services. Our cancer care teams consist of radiation oncologists, nurses, radiation therapists, dosimetrists, and other medical professionals who are committed to providing cancer patients with high-quality support. But, as a family member or close friend, you are also an integral member of this cancer care team. 

Loved ones provide cancer patients with the strength and encouragement needed to recover. In fact, research has shown that social support decreases distress, depression, and even lowers the recurrence of certain types of cancer. In short, your friend or family member needs you now more than ever. 

To learn more about SERO and the radiation services we offer, call us at 704-333-7376.