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How to Be a Good Friend When Someone Has Cancer

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Photo: Alexas_Fotos

When the C-Word Drops.

You probably still remember the jarring (maybe normalcy-shattering) day your friend revealed they were diagnosed with cancer.

While you probably help friends weather marriage and parenting issues, stress, and other low level issues fairly regularly, cancer is no minor snag of life. And it can be especially hard to figure out how to be supportive since this tragedy extends past the emotional realm to the physical as well. Not to mention that unlike some problems, where you can remain relatively unscathed by your friends’ challenges, this one may plant a deep seated fear in your heart.

Our friend is going to get sick. And in some cases, it could even be life threatening.

While cancer is primarily their challenge to face (and of course you shouldn’t make it about you), you probably will take on some fear of loss, worry, and other emotional ups and downs associated with your friend’s illness. That’s natural and healthy.

But the good news is you CAN be supportive. And while bedazzled IV bags and bad McDonalds after chemo appointments may find their way into the support process, here are 5 even more solid tips for coming alongside a friend going through cancer.

1.    Take a deep breath.

This first step is the most important. Take a little time to process the information yourself. Hearing that a friend has cancer can be very hard to deal with. That’s not to say you can’t cry together, just try to remember that this diagnosis is not all about you. Check out the American Cancer Society’s article Coping With Cancer in Everyday Life for more helpful tips about what to say (and what NOT to say!).

2.    Go with her to her appointments.

Make sure you ask if that would feel helpful first, of course. But if he or she agrees, having a friend to not only transport to and from chemo appointments but to sit by their side and hold their hand can be INVALUABLE. Nothing says ‘I support you’ like watching bad soap operas or playing Go Fish while sitting in a doctor’s office for a few hours!

3.    Help pick out a wig or other head-covering (if needed).

Ramp up for what will probably be the most creative shopping trip you will ever go on. Wigs have been shown to drastically improve the morale of cancer patients and can be very fun to shop for. So before you go, search the internet for tips on picking out a good wig and, if she’s up for it, encourage your friend to experiment and have fun with her new hair. Because, come on, this is her chance to rock everything from Farah Fawcett’s blond waves to Whoopi’s dreadlocks…even if only for a few seconds in front of a dressing room mirror. Throw in a movie or a lunch out and make a day of it.

Oh, and just in case it comes in handy, there are even some nonprofits like Cancercare.org that provide free wigs for people that can’t afford them.

4.    Find cancer support groups.

Speaking of the internet, try to find some cancer support groups online for you and your friend to investigate together. Even though he or she has your support, the added help of others who are also going through the disease can be very helpful as well. For some, it can be a unique gift to accompany your friend and help ease the awkwardness of facing an unknown therapy group. The American Cancer Society’s website offers a list of support groups.

5.    Above all, acknowledge the seriousness of the diagnosis, but don’t forget the fun!

Remember that your friend is still your friend. He or she still has terrible taste in movies, argues with umpires, and sings at the top of their lungs on road trips. Although their energy might be a little low, your friend still wants to do everything you did before…maybe just with more breaks (and lots of free jello)! Go to a play, to the park, or to coffee just like you used to and give them one of the most important gifts of all: normalcy.



There are 9 comments

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  1. Diane

    As someone whose mom had cancer, I would say find a balance. Offer to do something specific like bring a meal, but don’t insist if they turn you down. Sometimes sick people just need to retreat. Every personality is different.

  2. Evelyn

    Literally even if you do nothing in person, it takes two seconds to send a text message and say you’re thinking about it. If anyone is reading this, at least do that. Set a reminder on your phone to check in at least once a week. Or on the days when they’re getting treatment. It will mean the world to someone.

  3. Black Lives Matter

    I was looking for some tips exactly like this. I also like that you mentioned keeping your sense of humor and treating them like a real person. I honestly think I’ve been babying my friend and she’s probably really annoyed by it. 🙂 Oops!

  4. Viti

    I had leukemia in late high school and came out okay, knock on wood. But I would just add that if you are the patient, be gracious. When I was young, I didn’t realize how many people cared but a lot of people felt awkward or overcome with their own emotions. Even though they should have reached out, the reason they didn’t wasn’t because they didn’t care, but it was because they didn’t want to burden me and felt I had enough to deal with. A lot of them made a big deal of celebrating my remission which was nice.

    But I do agree that it’s best to do something. Send a card. Post on their FB wall. Be there in some way. It matters.

  5. Marsha

    I’ve been crying all day wishing I could take my friend’s new diagnosis away and she’s even going to be okay. I had no idea exactly how to respond. I think I did okay when she told me but I have been wondering what to do next to support her and this gave me a few ideas. Thanks..

  6. JuliaGirl90

    I don’t have any friends with cancer, but I do have a friend who has MS. I know this doesn’t apply exactly, but I think the part about acting normal around her is a good point. People don’t want to just shrink into a bad serious place everyday when they’re sick. They still want to laugh and have fun and blow off some days. Good reminder.

  7. PicoKerry

    My friend had cancer too and she’s over it now, thank God. I think the most important thing to take away from this piece, according to what she would say, is to just DO SOMETHING. Don’t do nothing. Too many people said they were sorry etc. but then just disappeared and never even checked in again. It makes me mad that a lot of our friends didn’t even send a text.


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