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Supporting a Friend Who Has Cancer

Dr. Lidia Schapira, Cancer.net

If one of your friends has cancer, you may be wondering the best way to support him or her. Even though you want to help, it can be hard to know what to say or do.

It is important to remember that there are no set rules and every friendship is different. Be sure to think about your unique dynamic and let that guide you as you try to support your friend. Keep it simple. Remember that often the little things mean the most.

Take Time to Prepare Yourself

Here are some things to consider before talking to a friend who has cancer:

  • Process your own feelings beforehand. Learning that a friend has cancer can be difficult news to hear. Take time to acknowledge and cope with your own emotions about the diagnosis before you see him or her. This way, you can keep the focus on your friend.
  • Learn about the diagnosis. Your friend may not want to talk about the details for many reasons. It can be physically and emotionally tiring to repeat the same information to different people. If possible, the person’s spouse or a mutual friend may be able to give you the basics. Write it down and repeat it back to them to be sure you have the correct information. If there is information that is unknown or not shared, do not push for more.
  • Think about it from your friend’s perspective. Remember a time when you were scared or felt sick. Think about what it felt like. What did you want to talk about? How did you want to be treated? You may also want to prepare yourself for changes in your friend’s appearance. Fatigue, weight loss, and hair loss are common side effects of cancer and many treatments. Start your visit by saying “It’s good to see you” instead of commenting on any physical changes.

Helpful tips when supporting a friend

Although each person with cancer is different, here are some general suggestions for showing support:

  • Ask permission. Before visiting, giving advice, and asking questions, ask if it is welcome. Be sure to make it clear that saying no is perfectly okay.
  • Make plans. Do not be afraid to make plans for the future. This gives your friend something to look forward to, especially because cancer treatment can be long and tiring.
  • Be flexible. Make flexible plans that are easy to change in case your friend needs to cancel or reschedule.
  • Laugh together. Be humorous and fun when appropriate and when needed. A light conversation or a funny story can make a friend’s day.
  • Allow for sadness. Do not ignore uncomfortable topics or feelings.
  • Check-in. Make time for a check-in phone call. Let your friend know when you will be calling. Also, let your friend know that it is okay not to answer the phone.
  • Offer to help. Many people find it hard to ask for help. But your friend will likely appreciate the offer. You can offer to help with specific tasks, such as taking care of children, taking care of a pet, or preparing a meal. If your friend declines an offer, do not take it personally.
  • Follow through. If you commit to helping, it is important that you follow through on your promise.
  • Treat them the same. Try not to let your friend’s condition get in the way of your friendship. As much as possible, treat him or her the same way you always have.
  • Talk about topics other than cancer. Ask about interests, hobbies, and other topics not related to cancer. People going through treatment sometimes need a break from talking about the disease.
  • Read his or her blog, web page, or group emails. Some people living with cancer choose to write a blog about their experience that they can share with friends and family. Or, a family member will post updates to a personal web page or send a group email. Stay current with these updates so that your friend does not have to repeat experiences or information multiple times. These updates are also a great way to start a conversation.

Do not be afraid to talk with your loved one. It is better to say, “I don’t know what to say” than to stop calling or visiting out of fear.

Here are some things you can say to help show your care and support:

  • I’m sorry this has happened to you.
  • If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen.
  • What are you thinking of doing, and how can I help?
  • I care about you.
  • I’m thinking about you.

Here are examples of phrases that are unhelpful:

  • I know just how you feel.
  • I know just what you should do.
  • I’m sure you’ll be fine.
  • Don’t worry.
  • How long do you have?

Remember, you can communicate with someone in many different ways, depending on how he or she prefers to communicate. If you do not see your friend regularly, a phone call, text message, or video call can show that you care. Let your friend know it is okay if he or she does not reply.