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How to talk to someone who has cancer

04 Feb 2020

Charlene Smith, Clinical Nurse Specialist for breast cancer gives her views on how to talk to someone with cancer.

A cancer diagnosis is a life changing moment for patients and their loved ones. Although it can be hard to listen and talk with someone who has cancer, and to understand what they’re really going through, there are things you can say and do to make the journey easier for them.

In my five years of experience as a cancer nurse, two tips I would share are:

  1. Be specific in your offer of help
    Instead of saying things like ‘let me know if you need anything,’ why not offer to do the school run, drive them to their next medical appointment or do the weekly shop – practical suggestions really help the patient manage day-to-day tasks.
  2. Be an active listener
    Try not to listen to the patient with a view to responding. Remember, this is about them and their journey, not yours. Try asking open questions or replaying back with what you’ve heard to check that you’ve understood. Remember, you do not need to have all the answers as listening well can go a long way.

Dr Nick Maisey, Consultant Medical Oncologist at The London Clinic, has some extra advice: “When someone is going through the devastating emotions of a cancer diagnosis, don't forget that they are human.

"Don't be scared to ask how they are and what worries them. A human touch can be just as powerful as expert clinical care.” 

Charlene Smith in The London Clinic's Cancer Care centre

As well as the dos, there are also some things we should avoid saying to someone with cancer. 

  • Avoid comments such as, "It’ll be alright", "You’re very strong" or "You’ve got such a positive mindset"
    Normally, these comments are good to hear, but for a cancer patient they don’t help. Emotions often fluctuate as they go through treatment and I know comments like these can set patients back.
  • "I know how you feel"
    The chances are you don’t know exactly how the patient feels. Patients themselves may not know how they feel, and implying you do can exacerbate these feelings and make them feel out of touch. Try putting yourself in their shoes when listening and talking with them.
  • Be careful when using humour
    I would try and avoid humour or jokes if they are talking about feeling sad or worried. Sometimes it can help, but it may make things difficult.

Further information


Any views expressed in this article are those of the featured specialist(s) and should not be considered to be the views or official policy of The London Clinic.