What to Say When a Friend Has Cancer

When I was diagnosed with cancer, my friend (who is also a cancer survivor) texted those words to me. I cherished this text. He said exactly what I needed to hear. It made me wonder if I’d said “the right” thing to him when he went through treatment. All I remember is offering him a bed to sleep on after surgery (he took it), ginger tea, and some homemade cookies. Other than that, I think I was completely at a loss for what to say.

When someone close to you tells you that they are diagnosed with something terrible, it’s easy to go into panic mode where you tell them how horrible you feel for them. The truth is, there is no one right thing to say to anyone and even when people said insensitive things to me, I didn’t get angry. (Like I said above, I’d been on the other side, not knowing what to say.) But at times, it made an already difficult time even more stressful.

So, I thought I’d share four of my favorite resources for communicating with and supporting a loved one who has cancer.

1. When someone is going through a rough patch – any kind of rough patch – the best thing you can do for them is to pause, stay calm, and listen. This is where your mindfulness practice comes into play. Instead of going with your gut reaction – which may be to scream “No!!!!” or otherwise react dramatically — do your best to hold the space and be supportive. I realize that “hold the space” may sound a little woo-woo. What I mean is, keep your energy and facial expressions even while they talk to you. Create a safe, supportive environment for them to share (or not share) exactly what they can handle in that moment.

And BE POSITIVE. It’s not their job to take care of you and your emotions right now. It’s your job to simply be there for them. This video is THE BEST for giving you encouragement along these lines. My favorite line is, “If you come across cancer, let it transform you into your most positive self.”

2. If you need to talk through your own fears, sadness, and terror, that’s OK. Just don’t do it with the person who has cancer. And don’t do it with their husband. Or mother. Or sister. Do it with someone who is further away from the patient than you — this is what’s called the Ring Theory or Comfort In, Dump Out. I learned about it from this article that ran in the LA Times: How Not to Say the Wrong Thing

3. It’s important to know that everyone’s diagnosis and case is different. Even within breast cancer, there are many different types and classifications. It’s easy to slip right into, “Oh, my neighbor died of that cancer in three months.” But, doctors and scientists are making great strides with certain types of cancer. This article from the Wall Street Journal about “super survivors” chronicles patients who outlived the odds because of a new treatment that harnesses the immune system to fight the cancer: How the Promise of Immunotherapy is Transforming Oncology

4. And this last one is a link to Emily McDowell’s brilliant, funny line of cards. If you’ve found yourself hiding out from your friend and don’t want your first words to be face-to-face, you can send him or her one of these cards, designed and created by a cancer survivor. My personal favorite: “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.”

So, there you have it. These links have helped me immensely and I still look at them from time to time. I hope they’ve helped you, too. And if you’ve got an uplifting cancer-related link to share, please do so in the comments!


  1. I am a breast cancer survivor and have written some about my experience. Here is one of them – “The Five Things I Learned From Breast Cancer” that was published at MindBodyGree. I wrote this in hopes helping others who are going through cancer – whether having it or supporting someone who does. Thank you for sharing this piece and these resources.


    Love and Light,

    • Hi Hope,
      Thank you so much for sharing this link. I just read it and was very moved. I also feel much more open, much less private since my diagnosis. It has lifted to many veils. That part of it is a blessing. Much love and warmth to you.


  2. Thank you for this!

    • Thanks for reading, Jenny 🙂

  3. You Got This is a perfect text. Thank you for writing this wonderful and important piece. I am a survivor and teacher of breast cancer yoga so this subject comes up on a weekly basis during our class chats. People truly don’t know what to say and I get it because I have good friends who are experiencing recurrences and it’s now ME as the person who doesn’t know what to say. It’s certainly not easy!! I wrote a blog about it a while back– but it’s about what NOT to say with a sense of humor behind it.

    Sending lots of healing light to you!!

    • Thanks, Kristina! I just read your blog — I so love the story about the waiter. Poor guy! But sometimes humor is what you use to get you through, right? Much love to you and your loved ones.

  4. Hello andrea,

    I wonder if you have some advice for me on what to say —(disclaimer: i feel very emotionally fragile regarding my diagnosis) mostly i avoid people because i’m sicknof hearing about their favorite cure or their friend’s death or questioning about why I developed cancer.

    The studio owner where i teach yoga suggested i give my old teacher a call before my teacher moves. I’ve been avoiding her because she is mos def the kind of teacher who will either a) tell me to stop being negative. (She considers cancer, illness and any contemplation of death “negative.”) Or worse she’ll give me a mantra or kundalini kriya to “heal” me.

    I’m leaning towards ghosting her, but then i’ll have to deal with Rebecca, who, bless her heart, thinks i owe my teacher a simple phone call.

    What to say?

    • Hi there,

      Thank you for reaching out with this question and I completely understanding feeling emotionally fragile about other people’s opinions. I chose to tell even my closest friends via email because I could not bear the looks on their faces or their offhanded comments. I knew that I was just too vulnerable. I apologized to them for the group communication and everyone understood. True, good friends will understand if you need to retreat a little bit in a situation like this. I firmly, firmly stand by the opinion that when you have cancer, you don’t owe anyone anything. Not a phone call, not an email. You don’t have to take care of others’ feelings. You get to pull the cancer card. This is a time where you get to decide what’s best for you and stick to it. Surround yourself by folks who make you feel good. And you can even say politely to them, “Thanks for not offering me advice. I have a great team of practitioners I’m working with to help me figure things out.” Or, “I know this is scary or you’re curious or whatever, but it’s not something I can go into great detail about right now. It’s too hard. I’d still love to hang out/watch a movie/etc.” I give you full permission to ghost and to tell people it is not a time to make you feel guilty for taking care of your own needs. I hope that helps and so much love and healing to you. Andrea


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