Your Friend Has Cancer: What to Do, What to Say
Your friend has cancer. You want to help, but you don’t know how.
You may be afraid of saying the wrong thing, so you say nothing. You don’t want to be pushy, so you don’t do anything. You secretly feel thankful (and guilty) that you’re still healthy. Cancer often becomes the elephant in the room.
Ignoring the “C word” doesn’t make cancer go away, but it can make it more difficult for your friend to feel comfortable talking to you. It’s important to really listen to your loved one to find out how they’re feeling about their diagnosis. They may not be as scared as you think or their worries may be less focused on their disease and more on day-to-day issues (like caring for their kids and spouse).
Where To Start
“Just let me know what you need,” is a common offer people make. Although this statement is made with 100% sincerity, newly-diagnosed patients may not even know what they need yet. Or they’re too polite to tell you.
We recommend taking a slightly different approach by offering tangible suggestions, while also leaving the offer open-ended. Here’s an example: “Susie, I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’d love to help out. Could I make meals for the family, drive the kids to school or sit with you during chemo treatments? Of course, I’m happy to help any way I can, but I thought this might be a good place to start.”
Some other ideas may include:
- Prep and freeze meals, keeping in mind food allergies or preferences (even if your friend isn’t hungry, their family will appreciate the meals).
- Ask your friend if any foods appeal to them.
- Put food in disposable pans and write the reheating instructions on top.
- Include festive and sturdy paper plates and plastic silverware.
- Get others involved by using an online organizer like CareCalendar.
- Offer to help with kids’ homework, shuttling them to activities and recording important events.
- If you’re taking your loved one to chemo, bring along a movie, a playlist or a deck of cards. If your friend prefers to rest quietly during treatment, simply hold their hand, flip through a magazine or close your eyes for a cat nap.
- Let them know you’re willing to join them at doctor’s appointments—it’s helpful to have another set of ears.
- Ask if they’re up for a walk or another outing.
- Offer to clean their home or hire a service. Be sure to ask before showing up with a vacuum and mop.
- Give them a journal so they can jot down thoughts, sketch pictures or keep important notes.
- Help your friend streamline communication with well-wishers by offering to set up an app like CaringBridge.
- Be supportive and encouraging, without being bossy. They’re already being told what to do from a medical standpoint, so they need to feel empowered about other aspects of their life.
The Right Words
People often avoid visiting sick relatives or friends because they don’t know what to say. These tips may help you feel more comfortable:
- Call before visiting to make sure they want company; ask if they need for you to bring them anything.
- Start with a hug or squeeze on the shoulder. Let them know you’re glad to see them, even though the circumstances aren’t great.
- Ask how they’re feeling, emotionally and physically. They may not want to get into details and that’s okay—let them set the pace. They haven’t become cancer; cancer has become a part of their life.
- If they seem hesitant to talk about their health, bring up a less-intense subject like a favorite movie, their pets, your children, a new recipe or a recent ballgame.
- Remember that they’re still your friend or family member. Ask them the same types of questions you normally would—advice about a hairstyle, which lawnmower to get, how to potty train your toddler. Everyone likes to feel needed and worthy of contributing.
- Don’t ask questions about past habits (smoking, drinking, sunbathing, diet, etc.) or imply that they’re to blame for their diagnosis.
- Keep in mind that not everyone’s experience is the same and avoid comparing their situation to another person’s journey.
- Don’t offer medical advice unless you’re a health professional. It’s easy to get excited about a miracle cure you found online—but they aren’t always grounded in medical science.
- Before leaving, ask if they need you to do anything—refill a glass of water, fluff their pillow, feed the dogs or tidy up.
It’s easy to put pressure on yourself to keep the conversation going, but don’t feel compelled to fill the silence. Most patients are thankful for your presence and may be too tired for long chats anyway.
The Long Run
When a patient is first diagnosed, they can be inundated with offers of help and words of encouragement—but they often fizzle out as time goes by. One of the best things you can do is to be a consistent (but not overbearing) presence.
Although people would like to believe that cancer treatment is a sprint, it’s often a marathon. The following suggestions will help you support your friend or neighbor on a long-term basis:
- Schedule a weekly or monthly get-together and keep it on your calendar so it will remain a priority. Short, frequent visits can be better than infrequent long visits.
- If in-person chats aren’t possible (or even if they are), send a note or call frequently.
- Handwritten notes are a lost art but are greatly appreciated.
- Vary the content. Send encouraging quotes, magazine clippings, appropriate jokes, pictures your kids made and inspirational messages. You don’t have to be William Shakespeare—just be yourself.
- Texting is another way to send a “thinking about you” message or start a heartfelt conversation. Don’t post public messages on social media.
- Call or video chat. A familiar voice and face can make a big difference.
- If your friend likes to write letters, provide a package of cute notecards, along with some stamps.
- After some time has gone by, ask if they need more meals. They may have depleted their early supply.
- Depending on your relationship with the patient—and your own financial situation—you might be able to help with bills or other costs.
- You could help with processing insurance paperwork or requesting deferrals for personal expenses.
- Offer to help decorate their home for the holidays, rake the leaves, shovel the driveway or plant flowers.
- If they’ve been confined, they might enjoy updated surroundings. Frame a special picture and set it near their bed, bring a new blanket or brighten their day with fresh flowers.
- Share books and magazines from your own collection or take them to the library. If they prefer to read on their iPad or Kindle, get them a gift card.
- Treat them to some pampering. If you can’t afford a trip to the spa (or they’re avoiding public places), take them some new polish and offer to paint their nails.
- Their primary caregiver may be exhausted. Bring them an occasional gift or offer to sit with the patient so they can have an extended break.
Although this can be a scary and overwhelming time, the most important thing you can do is to keep your friend in your thoughts and make time for them in your days.