When someone you know receives a cancer diagnosis, you may feel unsure about what to say or do. You want to help but you don’t know where to begin.
Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is like dealing with grief from a loss. Your friend or family member is facing a situation that is scary and overwhelming. And their life will never be the same again.
They’ll likely have a range of emotions after their cancer diagnosis. It will take time for them to fully process the news.
Here’s how you can help a friend or family member diagnosed with cancer.
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What to Say to a Friend Who Has Cancer?
When someone you know tells you they have cancer, how you respond is the first way you show support.
Start by listening
Helping your friend starts with listening. Don’t feel that you have to respond with a comment.
Take their lead and allow them to express their feelings however they want. It’s important to validate what they’re feeling.
Offer them a shoulder to cry on or a safe space to vent their anger or frustration. If they use humor to cope, go along with them and crack some jokes.
Simply listening is a gift to someone who is trying to process many emotions.
Don’t offer advice unless asked
It’s human to want to try to fix things or offer advice on what they should do to treat their cancer. Resist the urge to do both.
Respect their treatment plan
Even if you disagree, it’s important to respect their cancer care plan. Don’t offer your opinion on treatment options, vitamins, diet, or what else they’re doing — or not doing.
Ask what you can do to help
Early in the diagnosis your friend and family member might not know what they need. Check in periodically to see how you can help.
Watch what you say
Don’t tell them to “stay positive” or “be strong.” That advice can often feel insensitive to someone who is facing a serious diagnosis. It’s okay for them to feel vulnerable and not feel strong.
Don’t ask what caused their cancer. In most cases, cancer is a random disease, without a family or genetic history or cause.
Also, don’t start talking about other people you know who have cancer, or have died from it. Your friend and family member is trying to process their own diagnosis. Keep the focus on them.
How Can I Support Someone Diagnosed With Cancer?
There are practical ways you can help support someone diagnosed with cancer.
- Offer to set up a meal train. Cancer treatment can alter their sense of taste. So be sure to ask what they like to eat or can eat.
- Offer to babysit their children, or pet sit or walk their dog.
- Volunteer a block of time each week to help them with chores like shopping for groceries, doing the laundry, or running errands.
- Check in periodically to see what they need or just offer an ear to listen.
- Schedule short visits. Cancer can be an isolating time. A visit can help take their mind off of the diagnosis.
- Give the caregiver a break. Cancer caregivers can get burned out. Check in with them to see how you can help.
- Distract them with something fun, like a movie night at home, or a special treat, like ice cream. Talk about fun times together.
- Don’t always talk about the cancer. It’s important for your friend and family member to feel like they’re more than just their diagnosis. Call them just to say hi and talk about other things in your lives.
- Offer to keep friends and family members updated. Talking about their diagnosis and treatment can leave your friend or family member emotionally exhausted. Websites like CaringBridge.com help them tell share what they want, when they want.
- Comfort them through hugs or holding their hand.
What Can You Do to Help Them Through Treatment?
Treatment for cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. These treatments can affect your friend and family member in different ways. Here’s how you can help get them through treatment.
- Offer to drive them to and from appointments.
- Volunteer to sit with them during chemo. Your presence can offer a welcome distraction. Bring a book in case they fall asleep during treatment.
- Make them a cancer care package. Include items such as snacks, lip balm, warm socks, and a throw blanket.
- Give them gift certificates for take-out or a nice massage.
- Coordinate caregiving duties with friends and family members. Caregiving apps like CaringVillage and Lotsa Helping Hands make it easy to coordinate and schedule duties.
How To Be a Friend to Someone with Cancer. American Cancer Society. Link.
Connect with UPMC
About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center
When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.