How to Prepare for a Visit with a Friend Who Is Battling Cancer

A woman talks to her friend who has cancer.“Dave” is a 72-year-old man who recently found out that his friend “Carl” has colon cancer. Carl had surgery and ended up with a colostomy. His prognosis was not very good. Dave went to see him in the hospital. Carl didn’t look so good, but Dave wasn’t about to tell him that. “You look great,” Dave said. Carl smiled wanly. Fortunately, there was a game on the television. Dave and Carl watched it as their wives chatted about one thing and another. After about 15 minutes, Dave just had to get out of there. Later, in the car, his wife asked him why he wanted to leave so abruptly. Dave’s answer was a very common one given when people are interacting with individuals who have cancer, “I just didn’t know what to say.”

Why don’t people know what to say when someone has cancer? There are a number of reasons, but they can be summed up in one word: fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing, too much, or not enough; fear of the person’s illness, of how your relationship with the person will change, of your feelings about the person’s illness; or fears of death, and of the unknown. While people are given a treatment course and a prognosis, those are not written in stone; complications may develop and plans may need to change.

How do we move beyond fear? We need to put the other person’s needs ahead of our own and ask ourselves what they need from us rather than what makes us the most comfortable. For example, when Dave went to visit Carl in the hospital, who was supposed to be supporting whom? It is there, in that space, where we aren’t thinking of ourselves, but doing for others, even though it is very challenging for us and even though part of us would rather be doing something much easier, that we experience growth.

Things to Be Aware of

  • How to react: This starts with how you look at someone with cancer. People can see in your initial, fleeting facial expression a look of horror or shock. Try to steel yourself ahead of time. You may see someone who is physically disfigured, bald, very thin, or has discolored skin. If you walk in and tell them they look great, do you think that will be helpful? How about instead, “I’m so glad to see you,” or “You still have the same beautiful smile,” or “ Your eyes still sparkle,” something specific that is positive yet truthful.
  • What to say: Next, you must be comfortable with sitting in silence. If you go to see someone who is going through cancer treatment, most likely they are experiencing some degree of fatigue. This means they are not looking for a visitor who is going to talk non-stop because they are uncomfortable with silence. Non-stop talking is exhausting to listen to! This doesn’t mean not talking at all, but rather it means letting them talk, letting them lead the conversation and asking them questions about what they’ve brought up. This is not your opportunity to have them tell you the entire story of their illness and treatment as they have had to do with countless other visitors who think it is their business as well.
  • Planed visits: It is important to keep visits short and to call ahead to make sure it is okay to stop by. People in treatment have good days and bad days. There can be great variation from one day to the next without predictability. Plans made ahead of time may need  to be cancelled at the last minute because the person doesn’t feel well on the day of the event. You need to know this is not about you and not be offended by it.
  • No scents: People undergoing chemotherapy are very sensitive to smells and easily nauseated. Do not wear any perfume or cologne when visiting them.

Things to Avoid Saying

  • Talking in platitudes, such as, “Don’t worry, I’m sure it will be fine.” “It can’t be that bad.”  Do you have medical information specific to this person to back this up?  If not, you have no business saying that, especially if the person has been told otherwise.
  • Dismissing the person’s feelings:  “Don’t be sad.”  “Being mad won’t help anything.” Everyone is entitled to their own feelings, even if you are uncomfortable with them.
  • Telling them about other people you know who have cancer:  They are dealing with their own illness right now and don’t need to hear about your Aunt Rita’s breast cancer and how much she vomited when she had chemo.
  • Telling them about other people you know who had cancer and died: They are struggling with everything they have and hoping for survival and the last thing they need to hear is that someone with their exact illness didn’t make it.
  • Be very careful invoking God, even with those whose belief system support the concept: “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle,” “God has a plan for you.” Even some people who are Christian are offended by statements like this when they are ill. They may be confused or angry with God and statements like this may cause them to feel upset or guilty.

In closing, people with cancer need to know that their friends and loved ones are still there for them. Sadly, they find out who their true friends are as they go through treatment. Some friends visit less, then call less, then just drop out of sight. Those people miss a profound opportunity to share and grow in ways they can’t even imagine.

© Copyright 2011 by Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT, therapist in Bellevue, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jesse


    March 29th, 2011 at 11:38 PM

    This is a very common problem and one that have faced myself while visiting unwell friends and relatives. The solutions and suggestions that you have given here sound right and I’m sure a lot of people would benefit from this because what you are suggesting we say is very truthful and honest and in no way would unsettle the patient. Thanks a lot for this very useful post.

  • Sandra Jennings

    Sandra Jennings

    March 30th, 2011 at 3:03 AM

    Some people are better at handling situations such as these than others.Period.

    My sister can handle situations like these with ease and always seems to say the right thugs argue right time.I struggle in the same situations but she is just fantastic with such things.I believe some people are just better at these things than the rest of us.

  • Meg


    March 30th, 2011 at 4:35 AM

    Just being there for them and letting them know that they can ask or say anything and that you will be ok with that is strength that many cancer patients are looking for. They need that love and support just like the rest of us do. This is not the time to abandon them just because the situation might make you uncomfortable.

  • Allen


    March 31st, 2011 at 10:26 PM

    Norma, thank you so much for such a practical guide. I have a friend that I suspect has cancer although she refuses to have the CAT scan to confirm it (she has no insurance and couldn’t afford that)and I’ve thought about what I’ll say if it comes to that. I was drawing a blank. Now I see I was thinking more of me than her.

    One question: what can you say if they get a positive diagnosis that’s supportive yet truthful? I’m scared I’d dive into the ” it’ll be okay” platitudes because I wouldn’t know what to say in that moment and that would be so wrong because I don’t know that.

  • Norma


    April 1st, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    Hi Allen,

    Great question. You are right to avoid any kind of “It will be okay” statement. Some examples of supportive statements include, “I am here for you,” (if in fact that will be the case) and “I am so sorry.” There really isn’t anything you can say that will make them feel better, but your presence and your sticking with them is very powerful. Also, don’t feel that you have to “protect” them from your sadness. A person with cancer is going to feel sad too and sometimes being able to let their feelings out and have a good cry with someone (without worrying that they have to protect you from their feelings) is just what they need.

  • Nicky


    April 1st, 2011 at 10:46 PM

    The best thing to ask is a simple “How are you feeling?” I think. My gran had cancer and you can’t avoid talking about a serious illness if someone is suffering from it right under your nose, so why attempt to avoid it completely? I wouldn’t want others to tiptoe around it if it was me.

  • Grace


    April 2nd, 2011 at 6:20 PM

    I feel it’s better to not sugarcoat it. If someone is in hospital with cancer, they know they’re probably not going to live and you know they’re probably not going to live. Be a true friend and focus on them and the precious time that remains, not you.

  • Flame


    April 2nd, 2011 at 7:37 PM

    @Nicky. When my Pappa was in hospital with skin cancer, he said to me when I was alone with him “If they call it the ‘Big-C’ again I want you to hit them with my cane.” They aren’t stupid and are well aware of their condition. You shouldn’t talk to them or around them as if they are children. It’s still the same person you know and love that’s lying there.

  • nicola


    April 2nd, 2011 at 9:58 PM

    ESPECIALLY be careful when talking about God. Even if only a minority are not religious, many people in the US don’t like to discuss their religion. I don’t think it’s wise to try and make excuses for Him either: people on their deathbeds are thinking about loose ends more than their religion. It’s also embarrassing to say “God is waiting for you in Heaven” only to hear them say “I’m a Buddhist”.

  • Roxie


    April 7th, 2011 at 2:56 PM

    Even if a loved one is dying, they can still have a sense of humor. You need to make sure their last days aren’t full of bitterness and resentment. Your mood has an impact on their recovery and being in good spirits instead of all gloom and doom will really help.

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