How to talk to someone who has cancer, according to a psychiatrist

Words to live by


By Marissa Chin

FEATURED IMAGES: Priscilla du Preez / Unsplash | @anniset and @drcuerda / Instagram | National Cancer Institute / Unsplash
How to talk to someone who has cancer, according to a psychiatrist

No matter what your social class, financial status, race or nationality is, there is one existence in the world that consistently causes fear in all of us: cancer. The word alone conjures many emotions such as panic, hopelessness and despair—and even more so to those who have been given such a diagnosis. It is a painful and traumatic disease for the patient and their caretakers

However, we would do well as a society to do away with the stigma surrounding cancer. While it is incredibly daunting, there is still hope left to be had for cancer patients. Due to huge leaps in advancement in the medical field of oncology (the study of cancer), cancer treatments have improved and the rates of survivorship have also increased. While this is affected by many factors such as the stage of detection and type of cancer, we should not think of cancer as an immediate death sentence for the sake of those who have been diagnosed.


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In fact, it becomes all the more important for friends and loved ones to show their unwavering support to cancer patients during these incredibly trying times. We understand that topics such as cancer, sickness and death are hard to navigate and you will most likely be at a loss for words but communication with those struggling with cancer is vital for their mental and physical health. 

To help you with this, we speak to Dr. Celine Chan Tze Lin, who is a Consultant Psychiatrist at Sunway Medical Centre Velocity, to guide you through this. In light of Breast Cancer Awareness this October, here is what you should and shouldn’t say to a cancer patient, according to a psychiatrist.  


National Cancer Institute / Unsplash


Can you share what are some important things people should keep in mind while talking to someone who has cancer and why?

Finding out that someone you know has cancer can be difficult. If you’re very close to the person, this can be a shocking and stressful time for you too. You may need some time to work through your own feelings. You can even explain to your friend that you are having trouble talking about cancer. You might be able to help them find someone who is more comfortable talking about it by helping them look for support groups or connecting with a community or religious leader.

However, if you feel you want to be there to help, here are some suggestions for listening to, talking with, and being around this person. Communication and flexibility are the keys to success. When talking with someone who has cancer, the most important thing is to listen. Try to hear and understand how they feel. Don’t make light of, judge, or try to change the way the person feels or acts. Let them know that you’re open to talking whenever they feel like it. 

Or, if they don’t feel like talking at that time, that’s okay too. You can offer to listen to them whenever they are ready.


Priscilla du Preez / Unsplash


October is an important month for raising breast cancer awareness. In your opinion, what are some hurtful things people can unintentionally say to breast cancer patients and why?

In trying to be positive and supportive, you can end up minimising their experience—avoid this. 

Try not to say, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” You don’t know that. 

Or, “The chemotherapy or radiotherapy is not tough” because you don’t know that as well nor are you the one experiencing it. 

Don’t refer to his or her cancer as “the good cancer” either. These statements downplay what he or she is going through.


Contrary to that, what are some helpful and encouraging phrases friends and loved ones can say to breast cancer patients to show their support?

“It’s okay however you feel.”

“It’s okay that you are experiencing many emotions.”

“Is there anything you wish I understood about how you are feeling right now?”

“Even though you’ve finished a phase of treatment, I hope you know that you can still talk about it with me.”


@anniset and @drcuerda / Instagram


It can be particularly harrowing for women to go through breast cancer. How can people support the women in their lives despite their diagnosis?

Contrary to popular belief, once people accept that they have cancer, they often feel a sense of renewed hope. There are many reasons to feel hopeful in this day and age. Millions of people who have had cancer are alive today. The chances of living with cancer—and living beyond it—are better now than they have ever been before. And people with cancer can lead active lives, even during treatment.

Some doctors think that hope may even help your body deal with cancer. So, scientists are studying whether a hopeful outlook and positive attitude help people feel better. To support breast cancer patients, here are some ways you can encourage them to build a sense of hope in their daily routines.

  • Plan your days as you’ve always done.
  • Don’t limit the things you like to do just because you have cancer.
  • Look for reasons to have hope. If it helps, write them down or talk to others about them.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Reflect on your religious or spiritual beliefs.
  • Listen to stories about people with cancer who are leading active lives.



Generally, what do cancer patients not like the most when speaking to others about their health?

It’s natural to want to know what caused someone to get cancer but it’s important to not play the ‘blame game.’ Some will believe that an individual got cancer because of something they did or did not do. All bodies are different. Remember, cancer can happen to anyone. Do not put the blame on the one who has cancer.


Is there ever a right time to suggest cancer patients speak to a psychologist or counsellor?

Depression is common amongst cancer patients but it can be treated. If you or someone you know with cancer is exhibiting any of the following signs for more than two weeks, it is highly encouraged to talk to a doctor about treatment.

Anthony Tran / Unsplash

Be aware that some of these symptoms could be due to physical problems, so it’s important to talk about them with your doctor. Some common emotional signs of depression are:

  • feelings of sadness that don’t go away
  • feeling nervous or shaky
  • having a sense of guilt or feeling unworthy
  • feeling helpless or hopeless, as if life has no meaning
  • feeling short-tempered and/or moody
  • having a hard time concentrating, feeling scatterbrained
  • crying for long periods of time or many times each day
  • focusing on worries and problems
  • no interest in the hobbies and activities you used to like
  • finding it hard to enjoy everyday things, such as food or being with family and friends
  • thinking about hurting yourself
  • thoughts of suicide
Dominik Lange / Unsplash


In your opinion, when is the right time for loved ones to bring up end-of-life discussions with advanced cancer patients?

The end of life may be months, weeks, days, or hours. It is a time when many decisions about treatment and care are made for people with cancer. It is important for families and healthcare providers to talk openly with the person about their end-of-life plans and know their wishes ahead of time.

Use simple everyday language. Facilitate open discussion about their desired medical care and remaining life goals. Recognise that as death nears, most patients share similar goals such as maximising time with family and friends, avoiding hospitalization and unnecessary procedures, maintaining functionality, and minimising pain.


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