What Do You Say To a Person Who Has Cancer?

That – is an excellent question.  Fortunately you are already on the right path.  The fact that you are searching for guidance means that you are sensitive to the needs of the person who has cancer.  This is an opportunity for you to be a source of comfort and strength.  If you use the right words, they can be a soothing balm.  Poorly chosen words, on the other hand, can be hurtful – even if they are well intentioned.  So put on your caring eyes and prepare to focus 100% on what’s best for the individual.  Cancer is a scary, painful and often lonely ordeal.  What they really need to know from you more than anything else is that you are there for them and that you care.

With that in mind, there is one simple rule which will help you say the right things at the right time.  Use the article below as a guide and your words to the person with cancer will be helpful and uplifting.

If you want a reference tool to fold up and carry with you, download the free flowchart: How to Say the Right Thing to the Right Person.

How Not to Say the Wrong Thing

By Susan Silk and Barry Goldman printed April 7, 2013 in the Los Angeles Times

It works in all kinds of crises — medical, legal, even existential. It’s the ‘Ring Theory’ of kvetching. The first rule is comfort in, dump out.

When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? “This isn’t just about you.”

“It’s not?” Susan wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”

The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie’s husband, Pat. “I wasn’t prepared for this,” she told him. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

This woman loves Katie, and she said what she did because the sight of Katie in this condition moved her so deeply. But it was the wrong thing to say. And it was wrong in the same way Susan’s colleague’s remark was wrong.

Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

There was nothing wrong with Katie’s friend saying she was not prepared for how horrible Katie looked, or even that she didn’t think she could handle it. The mistake was that she said those things to Pat. She dumped IN.

Complaining to someone in a smaller ring than yours doesn’t do either of you any good. On the other hand, being supportive to her principal caregiver may be the best thing you can do for the patient.

Most of us know this. Almost nobody would complain to the patient about how rotten she looks. Almost no one would say that looking at her makes them think of the fragility of life and their own closeness to death. In other words, we know enough not to dump into the center ring. Ring Theory merely expands that intuition and makes it more concrete: Don’t just avoid dumping into the center ring, avoid dumping into any ring smaller than your own.

Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you’re talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.

And don’t worry. You’ll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.

Susan Silk is a clinical psychologist. Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of “The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators”.


Now that you are equipped with this simple rule, knowing that your words should heap comfort in and dump everything else out, here are a few ideas to get you started…

 Examples of what to say to someone who has cancer:

  • “I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I want you to know you can call me anytime, for anything.  I’m here for you.”
  • “Please let me know what I can do to help.”
  • “I’m sorry that you are going through this.”

 Acknowledge the reality of their situation but feel free to laugh and/or even cry with them.

 One of the best ways to show that you care is by listening and giving them your full attention.

You might also be interested in the following articles:

Did you find this helpful?  Love Transfusion is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and depends on user support to continue offering our services.  Please consider a tax-deductible donation of any amount:

Still not sure what to say?  A gift speaks volumes and can help a person battling cancer in a number of ways.  First, it shows you care and momentarily lightens their load as they focus on the gift.  Secondly, it provides a distraction while they use it.  Most importantly, it serves as a tangible reminder of your support for them through their situation.



Click on the suggestions below for more specific ideas:




What do you get for someone who has everything? Give a gift in their honor to help others who are hurting.

Love Transfusion

Love Transfusion, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which provides support for individuals and families going through crisis situations.

Please consider a gift donation to Love Transfusion.

At your request, we will send a card letting them know you made a donation to Love Transfusion, Inc. in their name.  (Please provide the individuals name and mailing address in the comment area when making the donation)

Do you have any suggestions of things to say to someone who has cancer?  We are especially interested in hearing from people who have been on the receiving end.  What did people say or do that helped you through your situation?  Please share below…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment