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What to Say When Someone Has Cancer

Cancer has become an insidious part of our society, reaching into the lives of many and affecting the way we are in the world. What can be difficult is knowing what to say when someone tells you they have cancer or that someone close to them has. It’s…awkward. And then we feel shame for feeling awkward. And then the shame leads us away from our hearts and into our heads to find the ‘right’ thing to say. So, the day I hosted a Pink Ribbon breakfast to raise money for Breast Cancer research, I chose a rather unconventional activity for my guests to do.

pink ribbon cupcakes fundraising for cancer research
pink ribbon cupcakes

Typically, at these fundraisers there might be games like Pin the Bra on the Boob or Best decorated Bra competition. However, as a meditation and personal growth teacher I wanted to do something a little more helpful for my guests. Something useful they could take away, along with the memories of the delicious food I’d prepared.

Here’s how I put it to them:

“I’d like to talk to you all about what to say when someone raises the topic of cancer with you, like when they tell you they have cancer, or that their mum has cancer or that their sister has died of cancer or any other situation when you may feel awkward and don’t know what to say or do.

As women and nurturers, we often feel other people’s pain. We also want to help, heal, fix and take it away so they aren’t suffering. We do this in many ways, for example:

Sharing a story that’s similar - “Oh my mum has cancer too.”

Or we try to lift their spirits by saying something positive like – “There’s a silver lining here.”

Or we go philosophical with “Everything happens for a reason.”

Or we try to help by offering advice and suggestions of healing modalities – “Have you tried the detox clinic?”

We try, try and try our best to say and do the ‘right’ thing because we really really care deeply. We do.


When we are with someone who is sharing their story of pain, and they are being heart-opening vulnerable, if you just listen, and don’t say anything, and let your own heart open too and allow there to be space for them to share their pain, and you hold that space open for as long as they need, then something quite remarkable happens.

They. Feel. Heard.

And this creates deeper connection between the both of you.

And a feeling of deep connection allows for a higher vibration of energy to flow.

And this higher vibration, is healing.

For them.

So then, it’s in the holding space part that lies the magic.”

I paused for bit to allow my guests to absorb what I’d said.

“What we are going to do now is we are going to find someone in the room to share our story with”.

The room internally gasps in anticipation, most of them had come alone.

“Cancer affects 1 in 3 people, so we are likely to all have some connection to it”.

I could visibly see nodding and glances over to the Heart Tree. Earlier they had written the names of people close to them who had/has been affected by cancer onto to a pink heart, pinned a little pink ribbon to it and hung it on branch of the Heart Tree which stood on top of the buffet unit.

I continued.

“While your new friend is sharing their story with you, practice holding space for them. Give them eye contact while not intently staring, focus all your attention on what they are saying, be present with them and not in your head formulating what you might say next. Let go of all opinions and judgments you notice coming up for you. Feel your heart opening towards them and imagine it carves out space between you and them. When you feel like their sharing has come to an end, then saying something like “I’m really sorry that’s happened to you” shows them that you have listened and you care, that you’re not going to take their pain away but that you are with them in their pain”.

I could sense they were keen to get it over and done with. Maybe so we could eat the delicious food waiting to be devoured? Maybe because they were feeling awkward? Or maybe because they were feeling doubtful, would they be able to perform this awkward sounding thing of Holding Space?

Without further ado, they paired up and began sharing their stories. I mooched around looking busy with the food for a bit and then… I looked up. Despite the loud hum of chatter, there was something happening rather quietly. I could feel it.


And just like that, my guests had easily and effortlessly and rather quickly created a beautiful energy of connection,

one that was uplifting,

the vibration was high,


They spent more time together than I expected, so much so that when I invited them to start eating the delicious food I’d prepared, they didn’t. They seemed fully engaged in each other’s stories, keen to stay in that space – connected.

Almost simultaneously I felt the whole room kind of – fuse. It seemed like the individual connections between pairs had expanded out further to touch, well, everyone. Like a vibrant web of energy flowing, holding the room together.

It was one of the most profound things to witness. Such a delight to be a part of.

For the remainder of the breakfast, my lovely, mostly solo guests didn’t seem awkward at all. They looked like they had the connections of friends, despite knowing each other only briefly.

There were comments upon their departure of “Had such a wonderful time Ange, loved the activity” and then that evening I received this message from someone who lost her mum only 2 years earlier,

“I really appreciated the whole thing. It was so nice to be able to share our experiences with cancer and feel listened to, thanks for that, so much love”.

Knowing what to say when someone shares something painful, and we feel awkward, is perhaps not nearly as important as knowing how to hold the space open for them to feel their pain. Pain is uncomfortable, for them and for us to witness it in them. Yet it is a part of the human experience. Denying and negating pain, grief, sadness, and anger is like crumpling up a piece of paper with a mistake on it and throwing it away. Except it never does go away. It resides in the body until someone takes out the trash.

Being vulnerable and sharing our pain provides an opportunity to do just this, but only if you feel seen, heard, and met in your pain. Empathy is when we are with others in their pain. Not wanting to fix them but just proverbially (or actually, I prefer actually) holding their hand saying, “I’m right here next to you, I’m with you.” Brene Brown put this beautifully when she said, “Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection”. As I witnessed and got feedback from my Pink Ribbon Breakfast guests, connection does indeed make things better.

* If you're interested in learning more about holding space then I'd love to hear from you. You can follow me on social media @flow_with_ange for an insight to my work. I always reply to messages.

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