Finding the right words when someone you know has cancer

For World Cancer Day, we asked our nursing and hospice staff to share their tips on what to say and how to react when someone tells you they’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Katy Francis, Chaplain at the Marie Curie Hospice, Newcastle

As a chaplain, Katy gives spiritual support by getting to know people, exploring the bigger questions about life and finding out what’s important to them.

Don’t be afraid to get in touch and offer your support.

It could be anything from a friendly ear and regular phone calls to lifts to the hospital. The important thing is to reach out.

This can feel a bit scary at first if you’re worried about saying the wrong thing. Sometimes, simply saying you don’t know what to say but you’ll be there for the person is enough to begin the conversation.

Try holding back from giving advice, unless you’re asked.

A friendly ear is often more helpful than the best intentioned advice. The person who is ill would have already been given a lot of advice – both welcome and unwelcome – so remember to listen instead of telling them what to do or think. 

Expect the unexpected.

As the person who is ill may be sad, frightened or in shock, they may also come across as grumpy, emotional, stunned, quiet or even talkative.

Bear with them and make sure you set aside enough time to have a conversation, especially if they want to talk. If they don’t want to talk to you about things, don’t push them.

A dark-haired woman smiles at the camera, standing in front of a banner about Marie Curie
Katy is the Chaplain at the Marie Curie Hospice, Newcastle

Tracey Buckley, Senior Nurse Project Leader

Tracey is an experienced palliative care nurse who leads on Marie Curie’s information for health and social care professionals.

Listen without interrupting.

Hear what the person is saying – you don’t always have to respond verbally. Nodding and quiet noises will let them know that you’re listening. To acknowledge that you have heard them, you can try repeating key things back once they have finished talking.

Try not to refer to other people’s experiences.

This is this person’s experience so it will be unique to them.

Be empathic, not sympathetic.

People generally don’t want others to feel sorry for them or to say ‘I know how you feel’ as you don’t.  It’s more helpful to say ‘this must be awful for you’ or ‘I cannot imagine how this must be for you’.

Don’t make promises and reassurances that are out of your control.

Whether this is relating to the treatment outcome or even the support that you can give, your promises might give conflicting messages alongside the information given by their healthcare professionals.

Claire Wretham, Spiritual Care Coordinator at the Marie Curie Hospice, Cardiff and the Vale

Claire helps people from different backgrounds to get spiritual support at the hospice.

Try expressing yourself through poetry.

It can be difficult to find the right words to sum up your feelings – so looking to poetry can help. After all, poets spend their lives working out exactly which words to use to communicate a feeling in a way that rings true.

 The poem I would choose to share is Time for Giving by Dylan Thomas.

A young woman with blonde hair is sitting in a chair and smiling
Claire is the Spiritual Care Coordinator at the Marie Curie Hospice, Cardiff and the Vale

Ann Scanlon, Children and Young Person’s Counsellor at the Marie Curie Hospice, West Midlands

Ann specialises in supporting children and young people at the hospice. Here, she shares her tip on what to say to a child or young person if someone they’re close to has terminal cancer.

Ann Scanlon, Marie Curie's Children and Young Person Counsellor
Ann is the Children and Young Person’s Counsellor at the Marie Curie Hospice, West Midlands

Be open with children about what’s happening. 

A child’s life is like a jigsaw puzzle – they’re constantly trying to put the pieces together. If they’re not part of the journey of someone’s illness or it’s not talked about, the pieces of their puzzle won’t fit together.

 That’s why children of all ages need to know what’s going on to the person who’s ill. They don’t necessarily need all the answers – they just need to know they are being listened to and heard

Need to chat? Support is just a phone call away

If you or someone you know is affected by a terminal illness, you can contact the Marie Curie Support Line for free on 0800 090 2309 for confidential support and practical information.

You can also find out more about how you can give practical and emotional support to a family member or friend who’s living with a terminal illness.