How to help a friend with cancer

Someone you care about is facing cancer, and you want—very much—to support your friend. But you don’t know what to say or do.

You’re hardly alone with how you feel.

For many of us, cancer is a frightening disease, and something frightening can make us feel uneasy. So if you feel uncomfortable reaching out, it might help to know that one of the most meaningful ways to offer support is to simply be available to listen. In fact, it’s even OK to say: “I don’t know what to say. But I care, and I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

And while there are no set rules for helping someone with cancer—different people may have different needs—there are some general do’s and don’ts.

Do: Don’t:
Become informed. As a first step, try to learn about your friend’s diagnosis—for instance, by finding out the basic details from a family member or mutual friend. It might be draining for your friend to repeat the same information to several people. Be afraid to talk about the illness. And if your friend feels anxious or sad, allow your friend to express these feelings.
Follow your friend’s cues. Your friend may feel relieved to talk openly about his or her illness. Or the opposite might be true. Your friend might need privacy. Respect your friend’s desires. Offer advice if not asked. Also, respect your friend’s treatment decisions, even if you disagree.
Try not to let cancer dominate your friendship. As much as possible, try to treat your friend as you always have. Talk to your friend about his or her interests that have nothing at all to do with cancer. Feel you have to respond. A caring listener may be the best medicine of all.
Offer to help in concrete ways. You might volunteer to cook dinner, pick up prescriptions or babysit if your friend has children. Make assumptions. Try not to tell your friend, “I know how you feel.” You really can’t, unless you’ve also faced cancer.

Sources: American Cancer Society; American Society of Clinical Oncology

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