Supporting Cancer Patients
Is anyone close to you suffering from cancer?
It is important to remember that there are no set rules and every relationship is different. Be sure to think about your unique dynamic and let that guide you as you try to support your friend or relative. Keep it simple. Remember that often the little things mean the most.
Take Time to plan your thoughts and action.
Here are some things to consider before talking to a friend who has cancer:
- Process your own feelings beforehand. Learning that a friend has cancer can be difficult news to hear. Take time to acknowledge and cope with your own emotions about the diagnosis before you see him or her. This way, you can keep the focus on your friend.
- Learn about the diagnosis. Your friend may not want to talk about the details for many reasons. It can be physically and emotionally tiring to repeat the same information to different people. If possible, the person’s spouse or a mutual friend may be able to give you the basics. Write it down and repeat it back to them to be sure you have the correct information. If there is information that is unknown or not shared, do not push for more.
- Think about it from your friend’s perspective. Remember a time when you were scared or felt sick. Think about what it felt like. What did you want to talk about? How did you want to be treated? You may also want to prepare yourself for changes in your friend’s appearance. Fatigue, weight loss, and hair loss are common side effects of cancer and many treatments. Start your visit by saying “It’s good to see you” instead of commenting on any physical changes.
Helpful tips when supporting a friend
Although each person with cancer is different, here are some general suggestions for showing support:
- Ask permission. Before visiting, giving advice, and asking questions, ask if it is welcome. Be sure to make it clear that saying no is perfectly okay.
- Make plans. Do not be afraid to make plans for the future. This gives your friend something to look forward to, especially because cancer treatment can be long and tiring.
- Be flexible. Make flexible plans that are easy to change in case your friend needs to cancel or reschedule.
- Laugh together. Be humorous and fun when appropriate and when needed. A light conversation or a funny story can make a friend’s day.
- Allow for sadness. Do not ignore uncomfortable topics or feelings.
- Check-in. Make time for a check-in phone call. Let your friend know when you will be calling. Also, let your friend know that it is okay not to answer the phone.
- Offer to help. Many people find it hard to ask for help. But your friend will likely appreciate the offer. You can offer to help with specific tasks, such as taking care of children, taking care of a pet, or preparing a meal. If your friend declines an offer, do not take it personally.
- Follow through. If you commit to help, it is important that you follow through on your promise.
- Treat them the same. Try not to let your friend’s condition get in the way of your friendship. As much as possible, treat him or her the same way you always have.
- Talk about topics other than cancer. Ask about interests, hobbies, and other topics not related to cancer. People going through treatment sometimes need a break from talking about the disease.
- Read his or her blog, web page, or group emails. Some people living with cancer choose to write a blog about their experience that they can share with friends and family. Or, a family member will post updates to a personal web page or send a group email. Stay current with these updates so that your friend does not have to repeat experiences or information multiple times. These updates are also a great way to start a conversation.
What to say
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.
Here are some things you can say to help show your care and support:
- I'm sorry this has happened to you.
- If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen.
- What are you thinking of doing, and how can I help?
- I care about you.
- I’m thinking about you.
Here are examples of phrases that are unhelpful:
- I know just how you feel.
- I know just what you should do.
- I’m sure you’ll be fine.
- Don’t worry.
- How long do you have?
Remember, you can communicate with someone in many different ways, depending on how he or she prefers to communicate. If you do not see your friend regularly, a phone call, text message, or video call can show that you care. Let your friend know it is okay if he or she does not reply.
Offering practical help
Your help with daily tasks and chores is often valuable for a friend with cancer. 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.
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. Asking “how can I help?” can be broad and overwhelming for your friend. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Shop for groceries and pick up prescriptions.
- Help with chores around the house.
- Cook dinner and drop it off. Ask about dietary restrictions beforehand.
- Schedule a night of takeout food and movies together.
- Baby-sit children, take them to and from school and activities, or arrange for play dates.
- Organize a phone chain or support team to check on your friend regularly.
- Drive your friend to an appointment. Offer to take notes during an appointment or give him or her company during a treatment.
- Go for a walk together.
- Think about the little things your friend enjoys and that make life “normal” for them. Offer to help make these activities easier.
- Offer to make any difficult phone calls. Or, gather information
- Find small ways to support your friend if he or she decides to participate in a fundraiser or outing.
Forming support teams
Organizing a support team is a great way to help a friend living with cancer. Some online communities offer tools to coordinate tasks among friends and caregivers. Shareable online calendars can help you organize activities among your friends and family. You can also make a paper calendar and write in the various activities and commitments by hand. Make sure your friend has access to the calendar so he or she knows what to expect and when.
There may be times when you want to give your friend a gift. As with any gift, keep in mind the interests and hobbies of your friend. A close friend may be able to give something silly or unusual. A neighbor or colleague may want to stick with something more traditional. Keep gifts fun, interesting, serious, or light, depending on what your friend needs the most at that moment.
Some ideas include:
- Magazines, audiobooks, novels, books of short stories or poetry, or gift cards to purchase reading material
- CDs or gift cards for downloadable music
- DVDs of movies, TV shows, or documentaries
- Pictures of friends and family
- Accessories such as earrings, bracelets, scarves, ties, hats, or beauty items
- Crossword or Sudoku puzzles
- Notecards or a journal
- A video message from family and friends
- Gift certificates for massage, spa services, restaurants, or passes for museums or an art gallery
- Gift cards to grocery stores
- A housecleaning service
- Portable hobby supply kits for scrapbooking, drawing, or needlepoint
- Pajamas or robe
- Flowers or plants
Friendship makes a difference
Continuing friendships and regular activities after a cancer diagnosis is a great way to further the healing process. Do not forget that friends also need encouragement and support after cancer treatment has finished. After treatment, your friend will be trying to find his or her "new normal" in this next phase of life. 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.
Dr. Rakesh Rai, MS, FRCS, MD, ASTS Fellow