two women hugging

Finding the Right Words: When Someone You Know is Diagnosed with Cancer

June 2, 2023

When someone you know and love tells you they have been diagnosed with cancer, it can feel like a scary and shocking surprise. How you respond to them can either make them feel worse, which is not the intention, of course, or it can make them feel comforted and supported.

“The No. 1 rule of cancer etiquette is to become the best, most understanding listener possible and try to acknowledge your loved one’s physical and emotional needs at this time,” says Columbia physician Shunichi Nakagawa, MD, an expert in palliative care.

Here are some basic cancer etiquette dos and don’ts from Nakagawa on how to respond:

  • Listen and allow the person to share their thoughts and feelings, give your full attention, and show that you understand what they are saying or ask open-ended questions. You can always ask them what they would like to talk about.
  • Express empathy, but don’t be overly dramatic. Let them know you are there for them without making it about you or how this will impact you or your life. And do not easily reassure them that everything will be all right. There is no way to know this, so do not give false hope.
  • Avoid offering unsolicited advice, which can feel intrusive and not helpful. Everyone’s cancer is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. You can ask if they want advice or information and always respect their answer.
  • Respect their privacy, especially if they do not want to share details about their diagnosis. Everyone has their way of coping with cancer, and there is no right way. And consider this information confidential unless they express otherwise. Just because they told you doesn’t mean they want you to spread it.
  • Remember that they are the person they were before they told you they had cancer. You don’t need to baby or infantilize or treat them differently.

Another way to provide ongoing support is to offer help with practical things like accompanying them to appointments or daily tasks like walking the dog, cleaning, and cooking. Cancer treatment can be a long, challenging, and often debilitating journey. Let them know you are there for them every step of the way.

Ultimately, there is no perfect way to respond, and we all try and do our best, but a loving hug can make a big difference.


Shunichi Nakagawa, MD, is a physician at ColumbiaDoctors and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. He specializes in internal medicine, hospice and palliative medicine, and geriatric medicine.