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The Best (and Worst) Ways to Support a Friend with Cancer

The Best (and Worst) Ways to Support a Friend with Cancer | Northwestern Medicine

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How to be Supportive and Compassionate to Someone with Cancer

Finding out a loved one has cancer can be distressing, sad, even devastating. It can leave you wondering what you can do to help. Remember that there’s no rule book when it comes to supporting your friend through cancer. Consider your unique relationship and try to help in ways that your friend will understand and appreciate. You might feel a little uncomfortable at first, maybe even scared, but it’s important to treat the person the same way you treated them before the diagnosis. And, it’s important to fight through your own uncertainty in order to be there for your friend.

No matter how you communicate, whether it’s in person, phone, email, card or text, what you say (and how you say it!) is so important. Here are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to choosing your words.

Helpful Things to Say to a Person with Cancer

Don’t be afraid to talk with your friend who has cancer, even if you’re not quite sure what to say. Just being there and saying something is better than nothing. Here are some good options.

  • “I don’t know exactly what to say, but please know how much I care.”
  • “What can I do for you?”
  • “I’m always here if you ever want to talk.”
  • “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
  • Use humor, but only if you know it will be received positively. Take your friend’s lead to gauge when and where humor of any kind is appropriate. After all, laughter is one of the best medicines.
  • No words, just listen. Sometimes your ears are all your friend needs.

Unhelpful Things to Say to a Person with Cancer

Of course you would never want to hurt your friend’s feelings, but sometimes you might say something that you don’t even realize is offensive or insensitive. Here are some general phrases to avoid.

  • “I know exactly how you feel.” Even if you’ve experienced cancer yourself, you don’t know exactly how your friend is feeling, so don’t pretend you do. This can make the person feel that their situation is not that big of a deal, when to them, it’s the biggest deal in the world.
  • “When (fill in the blank) had cancer, (fill in the blank) happened.” The last thing a person with cancer wants to hear is every Dick and Jane’s cancer story. You might think you’re being helpful or hopeful, but you never know how a person with cancer is going to internalize your well-intentioned anecdotes.
  • “You’re so brave” or “You’re so strong.” You might think this is an encouraging thing to say to a friend with cancer, and maybe in some cases it is. However, telling someone they are brave and strong might put pressure on them that they can’t always handle. While a person with cancer might be strong most days, some days they won’t be, and that’s ok.
  • “You look different.” Or even jokingly saying something like, “Well at least you’re losing weight!” Chances are, your friend with cancer is well aware of how they look, and weight loss (or gain) is not going to be looked at positively. They realize the changes in their appearance because not only do they see them, they feel them.
  • “I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Again, this might sound like an encouraging, hopeful thing to say, but telling a person with cancer that they’ll be fine, or telling them not to worry, can be construed as making light of a serious situation. It also instills a misguided sense of certainty during a very uncertain time. A person with cancer should be allowed to experience feelings like fear and uncertainty, as unpleasant as they may be.
  • Questions or statements regarding time. When a good friend or close family member has cancer, the topic of death might come up, and that’s ok. Just make sure you follow the person with cancer’s lead and ask questions that are appropriate to the conversation.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Saying “Call me if you need help” or “Let me know if you need anything” are, of course, perfectly acceptable things to say to a loved one with cancer. However, sometimes, if you really want to help, the best way is to just do something. Suggest helping with specific, practical things that your friend might not be able to do, just don’t be too forceful if your friend doesn’t take you up on your offer. Remember, nothing is too small or too insignificant. Here are some suggestions.

  • Prepare a care package with books, magazines, movies, healthy snacks, flowers, comfy pajamas, or anything else that might brighten your friend’s day.
  • Offer to run errands, clean the house, pick up medications and/or shop for groceries.
  • Offer to drive to and from doctor appointments.
  • Assist with childcare – even just taking the kids out for an afternoon will go a long way in helping a friend with cancer. Be prepared for the children to ask questions about cancer, or what their parent is going through. It’s best to take on a calm, but honest tone. It’s OK to express your own feelings; doing so might help the children express theirs.
  • Organize a phone chain or meal drop off schedule so others can help in a meaningful way. Sometimes having a care team can make all the difference. Consider online calendar programs that can be built quickly and shared easily with an entire group of helpers.
  • Simply stay in touch. Send frequent notes, texts, calls, but make them brief and light. Let your friend know you’re thinking of them. If you say you’re going to do something, follow through. Simply being there, and being available, means a lot.

Caring for the Caregiver

A caregiver is defined as the person who most often cares for the person with cancer, and doesn’t get paid to do so. Many times a caregiver will be a person’s spouse, parent, child or another friend. So, not only is the caregiver dealing with the physical and time-consuming demands of caring for a person with cancer, but they’re also dealing with the emotional stress of caring for someone they love who is going through a very difficult time. Needless to say, the caregiver might need a break. Consider asking the caregiver if you can step in for an evening while they take care of their own needs. Or offer to take the caregiver out to dinner and a movie, a sporting event, or anything that takes their mind off of their duties for a while. The caregiver will be thankful, and the person with cancer will be thankful that someone is taking care of a person they love.

And don’t forget, your loved one will still need support even after their cancer treatment is finished. Your friendship could play a huge role in allowing your friend to discover and maintain a new sense of normal in survivorship.

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