What (and What Not) To Say to a Terminal Cancer Patient

September 08, 2021
What (and What Not) To Say to a Terminal Cancer Patient

Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Michael Guerrera.

It is human nature to want to find ways to support someone with cancer. Most of us do have a desire to be empathetic. However, when the cancer is terminal, all of what we want to say can feel like empty platitudes. There is no “right answer” for what to say to a friend with terminal cancer. However, there are some things to keep in mind during these conversations.

What Not to Say

It can be difficult to know what to say to a friend with terminal cancer. However, it can be arguably more important to understand what not to say. Here’s a quick guide for you to consider: 

  1. Don’t give empty statements. Don’t say “it will be okay”, or “you will get better”. This can be hurtful for someone whose prognosis is short. While optimism can be helpful, in this case, it could remind the patient of their limited time and make them perform optimism for you at their own expense.

  1. Don’t make promises that you are unable to keep. You can offer to comfort them or assist their caregivers, but you can’t help with cancer itself. Being realistic about what you offer in terms of time and energy will help you avoid later disappointing them. 

  1. Don’t ask broad, general questions. Unless the patient wants to speak about it, you shouldn’t press them with questions about their condition, or general inquiries such as “How are you?” It is better to ask how they feel in this moment, or what they need on this particular day.

  1. Avoid conversations about religion. In the case that you know that you and the patient have closely aligned religious opinions, you can discuss this topic - otherwise, you won’t want to spring this on them. Be respectful about what they may or may not believe. 

What You Should Say 

There is a lot of room to be unintentionally hurtful when speaking to someone who is in a difficult position. However, one of the best ways of supporting someone with cancer is to just be present, giving them someone to talk to.

Firstly, it’s important to let the cancer patient talk and lead the conversation if they want to. They will likely feel that they have many important things to say at this moment and you should be ready to listen and give a response. This is even the case if they touch on topics that you might feel uncomfortable with, such as end-of-life planning. You should do your best to commit to these conversations - you cannot help with cancer, but there may be other things you can help with. 

Of course, it shouldn’t always be about the illness. One of the kindest things you can do is provide a distraction in a time that is often painful and frightening. If there is a hobby that you share, or current events that you both are interested in, feel free to share. Strike up the kinds of conversations that you had before your friend was sick. This will help you maintain a sense of normalcy in the friendship and help them enjoy their last moments more thoroughly. 

And, of course, don’t be afraid to be honest about your appreciation for the patient and your care. There is probably a lot you want to say, and now is the time to say it. 

Other Ways to Support Cancer Patients

There are plenty of ways to support someone with cancer. Words are just one of these ways. OneVillage is dedicated to providing the support, information, goods, and services that cancer patients and their supporters need. OneVillage allows you to contribute to a fund for a cancer patient in your life’s medical trip and other expenses. If you have any further questions about what OneVillage offers and site features, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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