For Friends and Family

What to say, and not to say, to a cancer patient

Posted by Sara Liyanage on 13 August 2021

What to say to someone with breast cancer:

  1. “I am here to support you no matter what.“
  2. “I don’t know what to say.”

What not to say to someone with breast cancer:

  1. “If I was in your situation then I would….” But you are not in my situation so don’t try to second guess what you would do.
  2. ” My aunt/friend/neighbour had breast cancer and then she died.” Seriously, people do come up with these stories. I heard at least three says Sara!
  3. “You will be back to normal soon.” No I won’t. There is NO return to normalcy.
  4. “If you had done X, Y and Z/ not done A, B and C then maybe you would not have got cancer.” No, it doesn’t work that way.
  5. “Eating A, B, C can cure cancer.” NO. IT. CAN’T.
  6. “It’s only hair.” Yep, you can say that because you haven’t had to go and shave all your hair off.
  7. “But breast cancer is a good one to get.” No it isn’t. No cancer is a good one to get. All cancers are life threatening and have horrible treatment. And it is not a who-has-got-the-worst-cancer-competition.
  8. “You look well.” Don’t say this. I am not well. I am covered in makeup and probably a wig and trying my very best to look normal, but underneath it all I look like a red faced, chubby, hairless zombie.
  9. “Sorry I’ve been rubbish and not been in touch” or, “Sorry I haven’t been here for you, but I have had [X/Y/Z] going on in my life and just been so busy“. Have you been dealing with something as serious a life threatening illness and all the emotional and physical crap that a diagnosis and treatment brings? No? …
  10. “If it was me, I wouldn’t want to be defined by cancer.” OMG this is a belter! Where do I start with this one says Sara? It is so truly awful that I cannot even bring myself to explain why it is so awful.

And remember:

Don’t get upset and expect the cancer patient to support you.

Don’t look into the cancer details and talk to her about them – she may be trying to avoid anything like that.

Don’t assume that she no longer wants to see friends/go out for lunch and coffee/socialise. Of course she still wants to do all these things.

Don’t ignore her.

Macmillan: Advice on talking to, listening to, and understanding someone who has cancer.

Breast Cancer Now has a booklet for partners of someone diagnosed with breast cancer which you can download or order here.

The information and content provided in this page is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice.

Reviewed August 2021


Sylvie Henry and Danielle Leslie founders of Future Dreams breast cancer support
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