How can I help someone with cancer?

Sometimes it can be difficult to support someone who is living with cancer as you might be unsure of what to say or how you can help. Here, Dr Kate Harrison, Consultant Psychologist at The Christie Private Care, part of HCA Healthcare UK, shares her tips on how you can overcome these barriers and have meaningful, impactful conversations.

What is the best way to start the conversation when you talk to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer?

Being diagnosed with cancer can affect people in very different ways and can mean that when and how much they will want to talk about their diagnosis and experience will vary too. It’s important to ask the person affected by cancer if they would like to talk about their experience. Make sure they control how and when they share their thoughts with you.

To start the conversation, it’s important that they feel as at ease as possible. Perhaps ask them first what has been happening to them recently, and what you could do to help them at the moment and then go from there.

How can you have a meaningful conversation with someone living with cancer?

If you want to ensure that your conversation has a positive impact on your friend or family member, it’s important that you take the time to think about what you might say before embarking on the conversation.

During your time with them, ensure that you practice active listening and choose your words carefully. It’s also incredibly important to let your friend or family member talk openly about their fears, and not shutting them down when they talk about concerns about their prognosis or death.

Here are some things you can say to help show your care and support:

  • I'm sorry this has happened to you.
  • If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen.
  • What are you thinking of doing, and how can I help?
  • I care about you.
  • I’m thinking about you.

What should you avoid saying or doing when speaking to someone living with cancer?

  • It’s best not to talk about another person you know who had cancer and their experience as everyone’s experience is completely different and it is unlikely to help or reassure them.
  • Try not to treat them any differently. They are still the same person and won’t want you trying to do too much for them or infantilising them.

Try to avoid saying the following phrases:

  • I know just how you feel.
  • I know just what you should do.
  • I’m sure you’ll be fine.
  • Don’t worry.

How can you support the family and friends of someone who has been diagnosed with cancer?

It’s very likely that the family and friends of someone who has been diagnosed with cancer will feel as if they’re on a rollercoaster too and might be experiencing feelings such as helplessness. Ensure that you give them time to talk to you and offload their thoughts and feelings. It’s also important that they look after themselves, whether that be eating well or trying to have plenty of sleep. Also see whether you can help them practically – perhaps you could make some food for them or send thoughtful gifts in the post.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their cancer diagnosis, it’s best that they speak to a trusted medical professional. To find out more about the supportive service we offer to cancer patients, click here: