What to Say to a Friend Who's Just Been Diagnosed with Cancer

What to Say to a Friend Who's Just Been Diagnosed with Cancer

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

When you first hear the news that your friend has been diagnosed with cancer, it’s likely you’ll be at a loss for words. Or maybe you’ve a ton you want to say, but you’re scared of saying the wrong thing. Unlike cheering on that friend during a marathon or writing a birthday message in a card, there’s really no script to follow. When we don’t know the right thing to say, we can sometimes feel like maybe we shouldn't say anything at all.
But now is not the time to be quiet. Research has shown that people with cancer need support from friends. Many studies have found that strong emotional support during treatment can be extremely helpful and even improve cancer outcomes. Survivors with strong support networks have an easier time adjusting to the changes cancer brings to their lives. Just by being there for your friend, you can make a big difference.
When talking with your friend, try to remember that the most important thing is not what you say—it’s that you’re there and willing to listen. Try to hear and understand how your friend feels, and respond in kind. Some things you might say:

You’re right. This sucks.

It’s okay to admit it. If your friend is feeling down about the diagnosis, it may not be the time for false optimism. Saying “everything’s going to be okay” can feel hollow when you don’t know for sure. Telling a story about another person who had the same diagnosis and beat it may make your friend feel like their feelings aren’t valid. Allow your friend to express whatever they’re feeling, whether it’s shock, anger, sadness, or confusion. Sit in those feelings with them, even if it means sitting in silence, and don’t ignore uncomfortable topics.

What are you thinking of doing?

Your friend is about to get a lot of advice—some from people who know what they’re doing, like doctors, and some from people who read something on the Internet. Being told what to do is never fun, especially when the information is conflicting. Give your friend the opportunity to exercise autonomy by providing a space to think out loud. Listen and be supportive, even if you don’t get the response you expect.

I’m free at these times. I’ll do laundry/bring dinner/watch the kids while you’re at treatment.

Asking for help is hard. Answering “What do you need?” can be even harder. Be specific in what you are willing and able to do, whether that’s driving your friend to appointments or scheduling a night of takeout and movies while your friend is recovering from surgery. Don’t be pushy about the help you offer, but instead remind them that you do it because you care. If you’re able to jump in at unexpected times, share your phone number with others in your friend’s support network so they can reach out when help is needed.

I saw this and thought of you.

A gift can be as elaborate as a new robe or as simple as an interesting book to help pass the time at appointments. These tokens don’t need to be directly related to cancer! If you share an inside joke or a certain memory between the two of you, a gift that alludes to that may make your friend smile and feel loved. Think about your unique dynamic, and let that guide you.

I’m on your team.

The hours and days after a diagnosis can feel overwhelming. Reassure your friend they’re not alone! Even if you aren’t holding their hand in the treatment room, you can still play an important role by meeting your friend for a coffee chat, running errands, or even just texting a funny meme for a shared smile. Being there for your friend is what matters most, no matter what form that takes. 

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at