How to help a friend with cancer

Published: 23 Jul 2019

When a close friend is diagnosed with cancer most of us can feel quite helpless.  It’s often difficult to know what to say or do – but it’s important now more than ever that friends rally round and offer understanding and support.  

If your friend has told you it’s most likely because they trust you as a good friend and want your support.  If you’ve heard through the grapevine it may be a little trickier to bring up in conversation. They might not want people knowing or don’t want to worry you.  When starting the conversation, be gentle and ask them what they want from you before wading straight in.

Many people with cancer say that sometimes friends seem to drift away.  This may be because the person with cancer isn’t up for socializing or going out as they used to, and after a few ‘no’s’ people stop asking.  But all too often friends don’t know what to say – so rather than feeling uncomfortable or at a loss for words, they unintentionally distance themselves, often feeling incredibly guilty at the same time. 

Here are some tips on how not to be one of ‘those’ friends at a time when a friend needs you most.  And if you’re reading this with cancer, share with your friends to give them a few pointers.

Stop and think first 

Consider how you might feel if the situation was the other way around, but keep in mind that your friend’s feelings and reactions may not be the same as yours. Thinking first before rushing in may give you a better understanding of what your friend needs from you. 

Don’t tell people with cancer how to do cancer

When there’s a problem suddenly everyone wants to offer advice; the best treatment, cancer busting berries, miraculous vitamin supplements, a new therapy you spotted on social! Offering advice or ideas can be a positive thing, but before you start always check they are open to listening or wait to be asked for your thoughts before raising the subject.  If your friend appears interested, point them to a website, or drop round an article so they can read up on the subject for themselves. Above all don’t make them feel they are under pressure to follow your well-meaning advice – let them make up their own minds. At the end of the day, the only person that can make decisions about your friend's care plan and lifestyle choices is your friend, along with the help of their medical team.  

Be a good listener

Sometimes the best help you can give is to just listen and let them talk. Listening is a skill – it’s not about having all the answers, it’s about giving someone your time and attention.  Turn off distractions such as the tv, sit next to them, make eye contact, wait for them to stop speaking before you start, and don’t be scared of silences – you don’t always need to fill them. It’s important to let them be sad or upset. You may find it difficult, but it can help them to talk about their fears and worries.

Stay in touch

As a friend, it's so important to check in and let them know you’re thinking about them. Send a daily text or share a meme on social, make time for a phone call or drop by for a chat. But let your friend know when you’ll be calling or popping in so if they don’t feel well, they can let you know. And let them know that it’s also okay if they don’t pick up the phone or answer the door – you’ll call another time.

Make plans but be flexible

Just because your friend has cancer doesn’t mean they don’t want to plan an evening out, a weekend away or a trip to the zoo!  Everyone needs something to look forward to, and when they're going through a grueling treatment program it’s more important than ever.  But make plans flexible so they can be changed last minute in case your friend needs to cancel or reschedule.  And even if you have to cancel, keep on asking; it feels good to be included.

Introduce some laughter

They are the same person they used to be - and if they had a sense of humor before their diagnosis, they'll still have one.  So be humorous and fun when appropriate – have a light-hearted conversation, recount a funny story, watch a comedy show together on tv or inject a bit of observational humor into your chats.  A bit of laughter even at difficult times can lift the mood and make things seem a little bit more bearable. 

Offer a helping hand

Don’t just say ‘let me know if you need anything’, because people won’t.  Ask if you can help with specific tasks such as taking the children to school, giving the house a clean, walking the dog or preparing some meals for the freezer. Don’t be offended if your friend declines your offer – but keep it on the table so they know they can call on you when they need to.

Talk about things other than cancer

Treat them the same – although your friend may have cancer, it doesn’t need to define every aspect of their lives: gossip, take a shopping trip, pop round for coffee, go to the cinema or watch the match together. Talk soccer, clothes, celebrities – don’t give up on your normal everyday conversations. People going through treatment need a break from talking and thinking about the disease.

What not to say

We’ve covered what to do – but there are also typical phrases that people fighting cancer just don’t want to hear.  Unfortunately, when people are struggling for the right thing to say… they often say just the opposite.  Check out Things not to say by Macmillan Cancer Support.

If you have any further advice on how to be a good friend to someone with cancer, please join the Chemotherapy Support Group and share your experiences and suggestions.  The group includes many friends and family members as well as people undergoing chemo, who will welcome your comments.

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