Six Ways to Support a Friend with Cancer
Claire Conley, PhD; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center
Amy Otto, PhD; Moffitt Cancer Center
Hearing the news that a friend has been diagnosed with cancer can come as a shock. You might want to help in some way or you might feel confused about what to do. If you’re at a loss, here are some tips on how you can support someone with cancer.
1. Be Open and Honest
It can be difficult to know how to talk with someone who is going through a serious medical problem. But do not be afraid to talk with your friend. It is better to say, “I don’t know what to say,” than to stop calling or visiting out of fear. Allow for sadness, worry, anger, or guilt; it is normal to feel these emotions. While they might be uncomfortable, just letting yourself feel them is helpful. Do not ignore uncomfortable topics or feelings.
Remeber that everyone experiences illness differently and your friend may or may not want to discuss their diagnosis. Follow your friend’s cues. It’s okay to just ask, “Do you want to talk about it?" If so, be supportive and validating; if they have worries or concerns, try not to dismiss them by forcing optimism or cheerfulness. If not, talking about topics other than cancer – like your friend’s interests and hobbies – can be a nice break. Be present and listen attentively.
You can communicate with someone in many ways. A phone call, text message, or video call can show that you care. Let your friend know it’s okay if they do not reply.
2. Offer Practical Help
Your help with daily tasks and chores is often valuable. Have a conversation, assess their needs, and offer to play a specific role. Be creative with the help you offer. Remember that your friend’s needs may change, so be flexible in shifting your plans as needed. Let them know that you are available if an unexpected need comes up.
Many people find it hard to ask for help. If your friend declines an offer, do not take it personally. If receiving practical help is difficult for your friend, you can gently remind them that you do not expect them to return the favor and you do it because you care. While not being pushy, try to suggest specific tasks. Instead of asking, “How can I help?”, ask specifically to avoid overwhelming your friend.
Here are some suggestions:
- Shop for groceries.
- Pick up prescriptions.
- Help with household chores.
- Babysit children, take them to and from school and activities, or arrange for play dates.
- Drive your friend to appointments. Offer to take notes during an appointment or give them company during treatment.
- Go for a walk together.
- Think about the little things your friend enjoys that make life “normal” for them. Offer to help make these activities easier.
3. Make it a Team Effort
Instead of trying to “do it all”, try rallying a support team to help a friend living with cancer. With their permission, you can use online tools (from websites like CaringBridge) to coordinate tasks among friends and caregivers. You can also make a paper calendar to hand write various activities and commitments. Make sure your friend has access to the calendar, so they know what to expect and when.
4. Don’t Forget the Caregivers
Often, people are so focused on the patients and how they’re doing that they forget to ask caregivers how they’re doing. However, research tells us that cancer caregivers are vulnerable to stress and burnout. They’re trying to juggle their existing roles and take over new responsibilities that the patient used to do. Try to give the caregiver a break—for example, offer to help with specific tasks—or some quality time with their loved one. And above all, be a friend to the caregiver.
5. Go the Distance
Patients need support throughout the entire cancer experience, not just at the beginning. Offers of help often flood in when patients are diagnosed, but then reduce to a trickle. It’s important to remember that help is not just needed when they’re first diagnosed or in the hospital. Remember that friends also need encouragement and support after cancer treatment has finished. After treatment, your friend may be trying to find his or her "new normal." Friendships are an important part of that. With these practical suggestions in mind, your friendship can make a lasting difference to a person living with cancer.
6. Be Flexible!
It’s important to remember that there are no set rules and every friendship is different. Think about your unique dynamic and let that guide you as you try to support your friend. Keep it simple and remember that the little things can often mean the most.