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For Everyone Touched By Cancer

How To Help Someone With Cancer: What You Need To Know

Written by Dr Shara Cohen on 
24th June, 2019
Updated: 30th January, 2024
Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

So you have found out that a friend, colleague or loved one has cancer. What do you do now? The easiest thing is to not deal with it, just ignore the person with cancer, until you hear they are better or worse. And there are many people who do just that, simply because they do not feel that they know how to react or possibly because they don’t want to face it. But this is the worst thing you can do for someone who might need you right now. You may want to help someone diagnosed with cancer, but don't know how.

Helping people with cancer does not have to be difficult.

This article highlights things you can do to help once you hear the news about a friend, loved one or colleague. If you haven’t got time to read this now you can sign up for our FREE email course, which summarises what is said here (and more) in 3 daily emails.

Advice From A Cancer Patient

Helping A Person With Cancer Starts With You

Learning that you have a friend with cancer can be difficult news to receive. Before focussing on your friend, family member, or loved one, it could be useful to process and take time to acknowledge and cope with how you feel about the diagnosis.

It might also be useful to learn about the diagnosis before you see your friend. This way the focus will be on them when you see or talk to them. It is also is possible that your friend won’t want to talk about it and this can help with your approach.

It is useful to understand that there are only three outcomes after someone hears they have cancer:-

  1. The worst outcome, which everyone dreads. The disease has been found too late and medical intervention will only prolong their life for a short period of time.
  2. With the help of certain therapies the person with a cancer diagnosis has a positive outcome and becomes cancer-free, either quite soon or after a number of years.
  3. With medical advice and intervention, patients can be living with cancer for an indefinite and long period of time.

It is perfectly okay to feel a range or roller coaster of emotions from sad, angry, scared, sorry or even numb when faced with these scenarios for your friend, loved one, family member or colleague. Whatever you are feeling, try to be sensitive and empathetic to the person with cancer. It’s okay to tell them you are upset (and sorry for what they are going through) but don’t let it overrun you, leading to them having to comfort you. You need to deal with your emotions first.

As we mentioned, it is normal to feel emotional (for example apprehensive, annoyed, angry, sad, guilty and/or scared). What is important here is to recognize that you have these feelings and not let them interfere with your relationship. Too many people ignore their own emotions (or that they might need support) which can result in them not focusing on their friend or loved one who is ill in the right way.

If you do have any of these or other emotions associated with your friends’ cancer you can talk to people about this, but not your friend. It is not OK to burden them with your emotions. Telling them that you are scared or upset may seem like you are sympathizing with them, but it can result in them feeling a need to comfort YOU. This is a time for you to be there for them and not the other way around.

To say that you are sorry for what they are dealing with can be enough. You don’t have to let them know what you are really feeling. If you’re feeling tearful, it is OK to explain this to your friend, but be brief. You might want to help, but may have to stay away until you can be there for your friend, without your friend having to comfort you.

Recognizing normal emotions that you may feel is important

Acknowledge if you have any of these emotions and talk to someone about them if that helps.

Recognising Emotions Associated With Your Friend’s Cancer

Guilt

  • because you don’t have cancer
  • because you feel in some way responsible
  • because you feel as though you are not doing enough

Worry

  • about how your friend will cope
  • about how you will cope
  • about the roller coaster of emotions and events you anticipate coming
  • that you can't or don't know how to show support
  • that you might end up being a caregiver
  • about your own health

Anger

  • because of the injustice of cancer

Scared

  • of what the future will hold, even living with cancer indefinitely or becoming 'cancer-free' will have its challenges
  • of the therapy side effects that they will have
  • of their future health implications (even if they get the 'all-clear')

Sad

  • because your friend's life will change
  • because your life will change

These emotions usually should not be shared with your friend or loved one who has cancer. It is also not appropriate to be emotional about your feelings around them.

9 Things NOT To Do For A Cancer Patient

So before we discuss what you should and can do, we thought it might be useful to highlight things that are not helpful.

  1. Don’t offer tips or advice to someone with cancer, unless asked specifically. Everyone’s diagnosis and therapy is different and decisions made are personal. The latest clinical trials, medical research, medical advice or advice / ideas about diet or health strategies are not usually helpful. Unless you know the person very well and understand how they feel about discussing these, it's best to stay away from any conversation like this.
  2. Don’t say they will be fine. Those words belittle the severity of the treatment.
  3. Don’t tell cancer patients you know what they are going through unless you’ve been through it too.
  4. Don't ask too many questions. You may feel that when you ask questions you are supporting them by showing an interest, but this can often feel intrusive and they may not be ready to talk about certain things.
  5. Don't offer to help and then not be reliable or sincere in your offer.
  6. Don't visit unannounced. Always call or message and make sure they feel ready to see you.
  7. Don't force them to stay positive or be brave. Talking to cancer patients about being positive or brave may stop them from expressing how they really feel. This could even contribute to making them feel guilty or bad about their real emotional struggles.
  8. Don't tell stories about other people's cancer/health issues unless they are very relevant AND positive/uplifting.
  9. Don't let them know you are afraid or make them worry about your emotions.
How not to treat a cancer patient
How To Help Someone With Cancer -Infographic

How Do You Comfort Someone With Cancer?

It can be very daunting to find out that you have a friend, colleague, or loved one with cancer. Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say and do.

Here we set out 3 simple things that you can do to help comfort and give emotional support to people with cancer.

1.Talk and LISTEN to your friend

The easy option is to avoid the friend or avoid the subject and this happens a lot. It’s not easy to know what to say. The most important advice is not to avoid your friend when they may need your support most and to pay attention to clues when you speak with them. 

In ‘Coping with Cancer‘ Holly Bertone has written a very insightful article describing how people should react when told that someone they know has cancer and suggests appropriate responses. She says that her friends need to know that while going through cancer treatment patients

  • may be needy;
  • may push you away.
  • might be depressed and angry about the diagnosis,
  • might be obsessed with finding out everything they can about my disease.

Although these are all normal reactions and emotions, what someone with a cancer diagnosis needs is for their friends to listen!

How to know if cancer patients want to talk

There is no right or wrong way to speak to a person with cancer and it is OK if you don't know what to say. This is your colleague/friend/loved one/family member who is ill. They could be scared or worried and not want to talk or they may be taking their diagnosis seemingly in their stride. 

Whether they want to talk or not is up to them. Keep in mind that the most important thing at this stage is to listen and to carefully choose what you say. This can help show your loved one or friend that you support them without the need to go into details. We discuss how and when to talk to someone with cancer in more detail in another article here.

2.Laugh together. 

Being humorous and fun when needed and appropriate is another way to show support. A light conversation or a funny story can make a friend’s day, but when this should be done can be a sensitive issue and you will need to judge when this might be appropriate.

3.Allow for sadness. 

Your friend may be experiencing a mixture of feelings. Everybody reacts differently, but some of the emotions they may be feeling are shock, disbelief, avoidance, guilt, blame, loss of control, independence and confidence, withdrawal, loneliness and isolation. They may also be afraid for their future. Patients may find that some emotions pass with time while others linger. Sharing thoughts and feelings can often be helpful.

To Hug or Not to Hug

Not everyone will need the same help and support, so you need to know the person that you are giving your time to, or work out from their circumstances what they may need.

Sometimes cancer hurts and hugs can hurt. Sometimes, a person with cancer does not need hugs, as it reminds them of their vulnerability. But sometimes, people need a hug, a bit of human warmth and contact to remind them that they are not alone. So, if you would normally hug this person, simply ask before you hug.

Give Your Friend With Cancer Your Time

As with talking to someone with cancer, there are no set rules and every friendship is different. Be sure to think about your unique relationship and let that guide you in offering to help in specific ways.

There are several ways you can look at this

  • Think about the little things your friend enjoys and what makes things “normal” for them and offer to help make these activities easier.
  • Think about their regular chores that may now be difficult to do and help with those.
  • Think about how their life is now and how their life has changed (appointments, new diets and so on) and find ways related to their diagnosis where they need help, or find new tasks that you can help with.

Three Things To Think About When Offering To Help Your Friend With Cancer

Just remember that helping a friend, loved one, family member or colleague with cancer starts with you. 

Offering to help

Keep in mind that people find it hard to ask for help. You may need to gently remind them that you do not expect them to return the favor and you do it because you care and want to be helpful. While not being pushy, you can suggest specific tasks. Saying, “I am here if you need me” or “let me know if you need any help” might not be viewed as a sincere offer of help or can be too broad and overwhelming for a person with cancer and you are most likely to get an answer that they don’t need anything. It is better to make concrete offers of help.

Here are some suggestions of tasks that might be helpful to your friend

  • prepare a meal
  • pick up prescriptions
  • do the laundry
  • wash the dishes
  • hire a cleaner
  • do the shopping
  • organize doctor appointments
  • offer to take them to appointments
  • make difficult calls
  • tidy the house
  • take care of a pet
  • arrange a night out (or at home with a movie)
  • arrange a simple day out
  • help research subjects / resources as directed by your friend
  • read his or her emails/blog if they decide to write about their cancer
  • let them know that you are available if an unexpected need comes up
  • organize a phone chain/or support team to regularly check on your friend
  • offer to take notes during an appointment
  • offer to provide company during their cancer treatment
  • go for a walk together
  • help them find a relevant support group

Remember their partner and children

Another thing you can do for your friend/loved one is ensuring that their family gets enough support during this time - as their spouse or loved ones may be struggling too.

  • Offer to pick the children up and/or take them out
  • Give the partner time off
  • Give the family a treat
  • Let family and friends talk also
Eight Ways to Support a Friend with Cancer: Tips For You & Your Friend

Other Ways To Help

Sign up to our newsletter

When you sign up to our newsletter, you will get our articles delivered to your inbox monthly, for no charge. Our articles contain information for all those affected by cancer. You will get tips on different aspects on how to help and also an insight into what your friend might be reading or experiencing.

Finally, many people say that they find out who their friends really are when they have been diagnosed with cancer.

A promise

Have you always planned on going on a dream holiday together? Although your friend/loved one may have to stay at home now, you could make plans for the future. Promise to do the things you've always wanted to do together! and then keep the promise. It's good for them to have something to look forward to.

Send a free empathy card

Simply choose any cancer empathy card from our collection, enter your details and post electronically. There is no need to sign up or sign in to anything. A free and easy gift that will be appreciated by any cancer patient.

Research freebies on offer

Our cancer freebies directory has a list of free items for any person going cancer (regardless of age or cancer stage). Depending on what country the person is in, you might be able to find them items like free skin products, lip balm, blankets, holidays, financial advice, help with medical bills and so on. All items listed are thoughtful donations.

Give an appropriate present: What is a good gift for someone with cancer?

Cancer gifts can ease this stress and show that you care. But there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the right thing to give. Not everyone having chemotherapy loses their hair for example, and a girly cancer hamper might not be suitable or the macho man with cancer. A useful present needs to be well thought out and appropriate for the person and the treatment.

Two basic tips to help choose an appropriate and thoughtful gift for a cancer patient

  1. Think about who will be receiving the cancer gift: It is not a case of one size fits all. A child having chemotherapy will have very different needs from an adult, for example.
  2. Understand the treatment when giving a cancer gift: When people think of cancer many think of the devastating effects that therapy can bring (loss of appetite, sickness, hair loss and so on). But with advances in cancer research, science and medicine this is no longer always the case. So for example, just because someone is having chemotherapy, it doesn’t mean their hair will fall out and you need to buy them a soft hat or scarf.

Cancer Care Parcel provides the opportunity to buy friends, colleagues and loved ones gifts they need.

Our gift ideas are useful appropriate and thoughtful and support a range of people, treatments and cancers including gifts for menwomenchildren and teens, people undergoing chemotherapyradiotherapy, surgery, hospital stays or no treatment. Plus presents for after treatment and convalescence

We also include gifts specifically for certain cancers for example breast cancerprostate cancerbone cancer and lung cancer.

Examples of appropriate gifts

Try not to let your friend’s condition get in the way of your friendship.

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Tips for Being Respectful

Ask permission.

Before visiting, giving advice and asking questions to a person with cancer, ask (either the patient or their caregiver) if it is welcome. Be sure to make it clear that saying no is perfectly fine. Start your visit by saying “It’s good to see you” rather than commenting on any physical change. Make time for a check-in phone call. Let your friend know when you will be calling and also that it is ok not to answer the phone.

Make flexible plans.

Make flexible plans that are easy to change in case your friend or loved one needs to cancel or reschedule. Your friend may need something to look forward to and therapies can be long and drawn out.

Follow through. 

If you commit to help, it is important that you follow through on your promise as your friend with cancer may need people they can trust and rely on more than ever.

Treat them the same. 

Try not to let your loved one or friend's condition get in the way of friendship and as much as possible, treat him or her the same way you always have. Continuing friendships and regular activities after their cancer diagnosis is good for the healing process.

Stay connected.

If you cannot support your friend in person it may be a good idea to stay in touch by talking on the phone (if they are ready to do this) or texting regularly. This could help make a difference in how they deal with what they are going through. But some people may want to be left alone during difficult times, so it's important to make sure it's ok to call or text, either by asking them or their caregiver.

10 Practical suggestions to help someone with cancer

Becoming a Caregiver

Caregivers play an important part in supporting cancer patients and it may be that you are close enough to your friend that you can support them in this way. But cancer caregivers also need to take care of themselves and we have another post with some suggestions which can help potential caregivers and those already in the role.

When Therapies Are Over

You need to remember that someone with cancer needs encouragement and support before, during AND after treatment has finished.

After their treatment, your friend / loved one will be trying to find his or her “new normal”. Friendships are an important part of that and another time that they will need your support and for you to listen to how they feel. With a practical supporting approach, your friendship can make a lasting difference to your friends and loved ones with cancer.

Last Thoughts

The support of family and friends is critical in your friend's journey and the most important thing you can give to someone with cancer is your time:-

  • Time to talk (when they want to talk)
  • Time away from household chores
  • Time away from worrying about family life and kids

Our tips above are meant as a starting point to ensure that the person you know with cancer, who may need someone at this difficult time, has you to depend on.

If you have any comments or questions we are always happy to hear from you.

Further Reading

What To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer

Five Lessons I Learnt Caring For Someone With Cancer-Plus A Daily Tonic

How to Respond To a Friend With Breast Cancer

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2 comments on “How To Help Someone With Cancer: What You Need To Know”

  1. Am a prostrate cancer survivor and would love to share my journey with anyone going through this trip...Am aware that we dont have much support in third world to help us face this dreaded situation.. Please assist me with any readings to help me comfort patients

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