Just as I do not go around thinking about my cancer all the time, there are times when I feel distinctly like a novice when it comes to talking with friends about the disease. This applies to friends who have been recently diagnosed with cancer as much as those who look to me for advice on what to say to their friends who have it.

In truth, each fresh diagnosis is just as shocking and upsetting as the last and leaves me fumbling and fuming at the lack of the right words.

And because every case and person is unique, notions of right and wrong things to say are not helpful. I have known people who said not a single word about their cancer, and preferred others to follow suit. Others have spoken of little else. One is not better or worse than the other. It just is.

I direct the following words, written a year ago, as much to myself as others, therefore, and in a spirit of openness. From one non-expert to another, it might help to remember the following:

  • Acknowledge your sadness and shock by all means, but remember, it is not about you, it’s about them.
  • Say ‘Let me organise meals on wheels,’ rather than ‘If there’s anything I can do’ because this is specific and takes the onus of coming up with ideas away from your friend. Then follow through on what you offer.
  • You are allowed to use the word cancer around your friend. Euphemisms like ‘being poorly’ are no use.
  • Do not bombard your friend with knowledge you have gleaned from the internet about their cancer. The chances are they know more than you do. If they want to know, they will ask. They probably won’t.
  • Take your lead from them. Sometimes they are going to want to talk about their cancer, its treatment, and nothing else. On other occasions they will not mention it, preferring to talk about their kids and what is on telly. There are no set rules of what is on and off limits. It will vary. This is normal.


When your friend is diagnosed with cancer