How To Be There for Someone with Cancer

how to be there for someone with cancer

“I have cancer.” The words are the most difficult I’ve ever had to say. But while I didn’t want to believe it myself, I desperately didn’t want to put the weight of my diagnosis on the loved ones around me. Maybe your friend or family member has recently shared the life-changing news with you or with a good friend of yours. What do you do now? What do you say? Do you cry with them? Do you stay strong for them? How can you support them during this time? After my diagnosis, I had a lot of people on the internet reach out and ask me similar questions, and knowing that everyone’s experience is different, I was too timid to give them an answer.

But here I am, three years later, understanding that this is a universal problem for the loved ones of a cancer patient, and sadly, it’s also the factor that leads to the patient’s loneliness and feelings of alienation. It’s a tricky situation all around. Hearing the news of a bad diagnosis can be a crippling experience for the family and friends of a cancer patient, which leads to hesitation to get involved, reach out, or offer support, for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.

I understand how at a loss you might feel in a situation when someone has just told you they have cancer. You’ll probably feel like crying after the initial shock subsides. But do you cry? You don’t want your sick loved one to worry about your feelings at this time. And you definitely don’t want them to think that you think they’re dying. But wait, are they dying? What do you even say? What do you do? It can feel like any decision you make is the wrong one.

Let me assure you, there is no “right way” to react. If you worry that you may have put your foot in your mouth by saying or doing the wrong thing, don’t worry! You can apologize for it later and make up for it by just being around your loved one and by offering your support. In general, being authentic can be very refreshing at a time when everyone else seems to be walking on eggshells. When people are tip-toeing around you because you have cancer, it can make you feel like it is up to you put everyone at ease, rather than facing your own emotional and relational needs. So remember, be authentic. And just be there. How? Well, let’s talk about some of the trickier needs most cancer patients are dealing with, and then I’ll talk about more practical ways you can help.

cancer-emotional-needs

cancer-patients-are-lonely

Spending time with your loved one is the easiest way to be there after a cancer diagnosis, but it can seem so difficult to make the first move. I implore you to stop thinking and worrying about it! Just do it. Hop in your car. Buy a plane ticket. Plan lunch. Bring coffee. Send flowers. Pick up the phone. Like I said, so many people don’t know what to do or say, so they just don’t do or say anything. And meanwhile, at a time when they one most value connection and time with loved ones, the cancer patient will often find herself alone.



cancer-patients-need-to-laugh

For me, just being around a group of friends was a great outlet and opportunity for laughter. It felt a little odd if nobody acknowledged what I was dealing with, but dwelling on my illness wasn’t what I wanted either. Usually I just needed friends to acknowledge what I’m going through and that they care, but then I wanted to just move on and partake in the usual fun shenanigans.

Don’t feel a lot of pressure to be a comedian. If you’re not really the funny friend, that’s okay, you can still help add some comic relief! Take your loved one with cancer out to see a comedy show or a funny movie that they’ve been wanting to see. Maybe just rent an old favorite and watch it at home where they can be comfortable. If it feels like a lot of pressure to do something one-on-one, ask a mutual friend to join you. Planning a game night with a group of friends would be a great idea.

I remember during the weeks I was recovering from surgery and waiting to undergo radiation, and I felt so alone and… well, just weird. Nothing seemed normal. But my friend Kara stopped by one day when I had some down time. We sat outside on my patio just talking about life and laughing together. Then she pulled out a cigarette and said, “You want one? I mean, you already have cancer, so….” And I laughed hysterically and so appreciated her ease around me, helping me feel like it was just like old times, even though I had cancer and she was directly acknowledging it in perhaps the most uncouth manner. No eggshells there!

cancer-patients-need-to-talk-about-their-feelings

Ask questions, and listen. Don’t assume your loved one is scared or worried. I actually had the unusual experience of not being afraid or worried after my diagnosis. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have disconcerting feelings and dark thoughts. I hesitate to even offer advice about this, because everyone has different ways of communicating, and different levels of vulnerability. But having cancer may make someone more vulnerable than ever. Don’t be afraid to boldly ask, “Are you afraid?” or “Are you angry?” You could soften the questions with, “If I’m intruding, just let me know and we can talk about something else.” But sometimes it helps to have someone draw out illusive feelings with leading questions, without relating your experience to someone else they know or something that they themselves had gone through. I would caution against comparing your experiences with theirs, even if you think it’s safe by prefacing it with “I know it’s not the same thing, but…” It may still feel like you are minimizing or distorting their experience to a degree. It’s safer to just stick to talking about how your friend is feeling.

If they feel alone because nobody around them understands what they’re experiencing, and you actually do know someone who lived through a very similar experience, offer to connect them by having lunch with each of them at the same time, or offer to connect them on Facebook. I found a support group page for people with my rare form of cancer on Facebook, and that has been a great outlet to find others who understand what I’m going through. This could be a helpful suggestion, though some people might be resistant.

In general, I would say that you probably know your friend better than me, so it is up to you to try to gauge the conversation so you don’t push them too far. If you try to have a serious emotional talk, and there is resistance, maybe it is a better time to offer an escape, a laugh, or just a fun time.

how to be there for someone with cancer

physical needs of cancer patients

Because everyone’s needs and feelings are different, and often change from day to day, my first thought is that you should just ask your loved one how you can be there for them after their cancer diagnosis. Maybe they will give you an honest answer. Or maybe they don’t know what they’re feeling or needing, or they (like me) are a bit too prideful to let you know. Oftentimes those diagnosed with cancer don’t want to be a burden to their loved ones. So keep that in mind, and if you suspect that might be the case with your loved ones, there are some practical ways you can help meet their needs while assuaging their pride. Most likely some of these struggles below will affect your loved one, and you can help without having to say, “Let me know how I can help.” (Because they probably won’t.)



cancer-patients-need-help-driving

I had to drive three hours a day, round-trip, to my cancer treatment which lasted a total of five weeks. It was exhausting, expensive, and could have been very lonely. My mom went with me most days, my mother-in-law and cousin pitched in, and one time a friend accompanied me, which actually made the trip a lot of fun! If your loved one is up for it, do something fun right after treatment. I have to caution you, depending on what treatment they received, they may just need rest afterwards. But if you’d like to share some fun experiences with them, don’t wait until they’re halfway through their treatment regimen. The side effects get worse and worse, so doing fun things during the first couple weeks might be the only opportunity until after they’ve recovered.

cancer-and-hunger

Depending on the treatment they’re receiving, your friend may be struggling to eat. Bringing food for the rest of the family can be helpful, especially if the cancer patient is the one who usually prepares meals for the family. Keep in mind that the cancer patient herself might not be able to eat the same foods as her family. Ask her or her family what she’s been eating, and bring that to her home. I lived on smoothies, so I needed lots of prepped vegetables, fruits, milled flax seed, and that sort of thing. My issue was not only that I couldn’t taste food, but also that my mouth wasn’t producing saliva. So every time I tried to salivate I would break out in painful blood blisters on my cheeks and under/around my tongue. This happened whenever I saw yummy food or put anything into my mouth— even my toothbrush. Other people may have lost their appetite altogether, or may feel extremely nauseous and can only stomach certain foods. This is so frustrating both physically and emotionally for the patient, as you can probably imagine. My grandma loved the comfort of ice cream when she went through chemo. I tried eating ice cream during my treatment and cried because I couldn’t taste it and it just gave me blisters in my mouth. For someone who is used to going to food for comfort, it’s a very emotional experience not being able to eat or taste food.

cancer-patients-are-tired

Cancer patients still have to go to work in most cases, and those patients with children are always on the clock. Offer to take the children to the park, library, or a fun destination that will get out their energy. Tell your friend to use this time to rest and take a nap. Before you leave, change the sheets on their bed, start a load of laundry, and finish the load when you return. Or maybe take laundry with you and bring it back clean and neatly folded the next day. That leads me to my next point.

Cancer patients have housework. How can you help?

Think of how difficult housework is to keep up with in your own home. And then imagine how difficult it is when you are losing hours a week traveling to doctors appointments, and then feeling zapped of all energy once you’re home. The cancer patient still feels like she should be contributing to housework, as ridiculous as that may seem. She still likes a clean house, and her children and pets still create messes while she rests on the sofa. The toilets are still being used, and the dishes are piling up beside the sink. You know what I’m about to say. Go over there and be her housekeeper!

If you can’t clean the whole house, at least do the dishes or take their laundry with you and bring it back neatly folded the next day.

Please keep in mind how incredibly awkward it is to let someone in your home to clean up after you, especially when you’re right there sitting on the sofa, feeling like a lazy bum— even though you’re just a fatigued cancer patient. So I recommend you team up with another helpful friend who will take your loved one out of the house while it’s being cleaned. The two of them can do something fun and relaxing, like a pedicure, a massage, or a trip to the movies. Then, the next week, you can be the one to go out and do the fun thing while your helpful friend stays and cleans.

Having a clean house is so refreshing and can lift pounds of stress and anxiety from the shoulders of someone relaxing at home during cancer treatment. If you’re not able to clean for her because of distance or time, please consider hiring a regular maid service to help her for a month or two. She might not ever consider doing this for herself, but this sacrifice on your part might be the most support she’ll receive during her experience with cancer.



Cancer patients have children. How can you help?

As I mentioned before, offer to get the children out of the house so your friend can rest. Or offer to stay at home with the kids while he or she runs errands or does something fun with another friend. Maybe your friend needs a date night, or just a night of uninterrupted sleep. If you’re a trusted friend of the family, why not offer to keep the children overnight, or stay at her house to help out with babies and children through the night? I had cancer and a small baby at the same time, and having help with kids made me feel refreshed and stronger than ever.

Cancer-patients-have-financial-needs.-How-can-you-help-

Cancer takes a toll emotionally and physically, but it can absolutely decimate people financially. Many people would not admit to floundering financially, and would not feel comfortable taking money if offered. But that doesn’t mean you can’t assist anonymously if you’re able. Our church office called us one day to tell us that an anonymous someone wanted to know how much money we needed to pay off all of my medical bills. We were very uncomfortable with this, even though we believe this is what the church family is for. So we told them an amount that would certainly help (but would still leave us with debt), and then we received a money order for that amount in the mail. Of course I cried all the way to the bank. Another friend arranged a fund amongst some of my friends from the old days of scrapbook blogging and chatting on message boards. They all gave what they could, the sum of which added up to be very helpful. Yes, I cried again.

Maybe if you feel like your friend won’t be comfortable with receiving money (anonymously or otherwise), you could send gift cards to grocery stores, gas stations, or even retail shops. Retail gift cards might seem like an impractical way to help, but I know that if I received money, it would go directly to my medical bills, and I would feel guilty spending it on anything else. Giving a retail gift card gives that person permission to indulge in some retail therapy, or provide a Christmas for their family that they had thought would be impossible after their cancer diagnosis.

I remember wanting to go on a trip with Phil, because I didn’t know what our future held, and I felt the immediacy of my relationship with him (and of course with my whole family). But we just didn’t have the money. So we never did. Someday, I want to be so on top of our finances that I can afford to buy a getaway for a friend who, God forbid, might have cancer, so she can have some quality time with her husband. This is just an idea for those who are well off financially and who want to know ways they can dramatically support a loved one with cancer.

what makes a shadow

what not to do for someone with cancer

First of all, I know these might not be true for everyone, but they were true for me. And if you said or did one of these things to me when I was diagnosed, please don’t feel bad. I’m just glad that you cared enough to reach out to show your concern and give your support. But also, just know that these aren’t the best things to do or say, so if you want to be sensitive to your loved one with cancer, take note.

Don't offer to connect them with your homeopathic doctor.

You might ask them if they’re happy with their care, and if they’re not, you may then ask if they’re interested in alternative medicine. If the answer is yes, then by all means connect them with a homeopathic doctor you trust.

Don't tell them a story about someone you know who had cancer.

Even if the story had a happy ending, it can across as desperate for good news and encouragement, which inadvertently tells them that their situation is so sad you need to manufacture hope. Your friend with cancer is unique, and the struggle they’re embarking on is unique. Everyone’s diagnosis is different, as is their treatment, prognosis, and certainly the type of cancer. I was in a unique position because the type of cancer I have is extremely rare, and it isn’t made up of cancer cells like most others. It is cancerous in behavior only, and there’s not much known about the tumors themselves. Most likely nobody personally knew someone with my same type of cancer, and even if they did, our stories would be vastly different. This is another reason why suggesting forms of treatment or doctors is a bit ridiculous. I doubt if many homeopathic doctors know anything about cancerous paragangliomas, and it’s just exhausting trying to explain this to people who brought up alternative treatment ideas. So I would usually just smile and nod, and feel a bit worked up on the inside.

Now this is not to say that you can’t say something like, “My brother-in-law has cancer too.” Or, “My aunt has cancer too. I’m not quite sure how to be there for her.” This is a way of connecting, and isn’t necessarily relating someone else’s experience to your loved one’s experience. I guess if you’re wondering, you can always ask, “Does it frustrate you when people tell you stories about other people they know with cancer?”



don't-give-them-brochures

Again, feel free to ask if they’re interested in more information about new treatment options or centers you’ve heard about, or about support groups that could be helpful. If the answer is yes, then by all means, provide them with material. But I would always ask first.

cancer-merchandise

Perhaps you bought something with a ribbon on it to donate your money in support of those with cancer, and you’d like your friend with cancer to know and feel your support. So you give it to them as a gift. But I personally wouldn’t know what to do with something like that practically speaking, and besides, why would donate to a charity supporting those with cancer, when someone in need of financial support is right in front of you? Maybe it’s awkward to offer financial help, but I already mentioned a bunch of financial ways you can that might be less awkward than just writing a check. I guarantee however you could financially help, it will be more appreciated than the cancer tchotchkes.

cancer industry conspiracies

As convinced as you may be that your loved one is being fleeced by a flawed medical industry, telling them about it is not helpful. It makes their experience more about you and your ideas than about them and their plight. Clearly they have confidence in their doctors and the medical field or they would be pursuing alternative forms of treatment. Just spouting off your theories and vitriol of the industry will shake up your loved one and may take away one of the few confidences they have— confidence in their caregivers. This particular warning takes the cake for me. Please, don’t be “that guy.”

just-be-there

These are all good things to think about and consider, but the best way you can help someone with cancer is to quit overanalyzing everything and just be there for them! Show your care and concern. Offer your prayers, and don’t feel the need to always tell them that you’re praying. Just pray, if that’s what you’re convicted to do. Tell them you’re thinking about them. Send them flowers. And let them know that they are loved.

For those interested in my cancer journey, here are some past posts I’ve written about my experiences.

All illustrations are created by Adrienne Adams for the 1962 children’s book “What Makes a Shadow?”

10 Responses

  1. Nikki says:

    This is such a helpful post, my family has a long history of cancer and I’m always unsure of exactly how to deal with it. The first time my mom had breast cancer I honestly felt so disconnected from the experience, the diagnosis came after my aunt had wrapped up chemo and was finally feeling good again. I was 19 and my parents did as much as they could to downplay what my mom was going through. They treated her mastectomy as something totally run-of-the-mill and it wasn’t till my mom got back from her surgery (across the country) that I could even kind of understand the gravity of what she was going through.

    The second time she had cancer she was given a few years to live, I remember leaving work after hearing the news to go and meet her. I stopped at T.J. Maxx because, in my mind, I couldn’t show up empty-handed. I bought her a scarf because I knew she’d be starting chemo soon and would need something to keep her warm through the winter. Through some miracle she made it through the second time and now has a new lease on life, it was interesting to see how different people in our lives reacted to her second diagnosis. Some people came out of the woodwork to show support and help our family, while others (even close family or friends) seemed to recede from the weirdness of hearing that someone they cared for was facing death.

    When my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, I felt more prepared to deal with the situation. Our family rallied around her, providing laughter, hope, help, and love. Despite chemo, radiation, and a double mastectomy, my aunt has shined through the whole experience. She, my mother, and my other aunt are proof of how much healing care (outside of medical) can vastly improve a grim situation.

    • Mandi says:

      I was tearing up reading your comment. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I’m so glad your mother is still able to be here and a part of your life. Cancer, when you make it through, can be such a gift, with the new perspective it brings. -Mandi

  2. Linda says:

    I think you have offered some great advice! Not having had cancer yet” ( have it in my family) I appreciated hearing how you felt . and after listening to what you had to say it is much the same when you loose a loved one. people just don’t know what to do or how to handle it. so I think its great that you are explaining it. I remember way back when I was working as a beautician and a lady came in and sait in my chair. we started talking and I could tell something just wasn’t right and she told me that she had just lost her husband and didn’t know how to deal with it. and she esplained that once all of her friends had said how sorry they were they simply backed away from her when she needed them most. I had lost a son so knew exactly what she meant. we talked way past her appointment time and she told me as she walked out the door that she felt better then she had in a very long time. some times the most important thing you can do for a person is to just be there” and listen or not listen if they don’t feel like talking. God Bless you!

  3. Fullerton street studio says:

    I love this post. I have not had cancer; but I have been fighting an illness for about a decade. It started when I had three kiddos 3 yrs and under, and I am still fighting it. I often cannot eat or sleep so I’m pretty tired most of the time. I homeschool my three boys so I am never “off the clock”. What resonated so much about your post was how people try to offer suggestions or doubt your choice of care and treatment. It is so painful to have to defend yourself when you feel your most vulnerable. The other thing was how lonely being ill can be. I cannot turn to food for comfort either and I so miss those nights with friends, having a glass of wine, sharing some yummy appetizer. I never realized how isolating not being able to enter into those things is. Right now I feel like I hover on the outskirts of life a bit, watching everyone else live effortlessly healthy. I am thankful, however, that this has given me more compassion for people who are fighting illness. How important, like you said, to just be there for them, doing the practical things like laundry or dishes. Thanks for this post. It helps me even more to know how to help my friends who are specifically battling cancer and I think your wisdom can be applied to just about anyone with an ongoing illness.

  4. Dena says:

    Thank you. I always struggle with what to do or say in this situation. This was a great post.

  5. Kim says:

    NAILED IT! KNOCKED IT OUT OF THE PARK!! Such an awesome post. I’m a stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer survivor. Now over 3 years…so grateful. Not your garden variety breast cancer, we’re talking scary stuff. I was on treatment for over 18 months. I’m self-employed. It was financially devastating and continues to be as we deal with the medical debt.

    I think one hindrance to contacting your friend/family member is what to say but also not wanting to disturb them because they might be sleeping/resting. I would have been wonderful just to receive a text saying “Hey, I’m thinking of you today”. Also regarding conversations just to ask “how are you doing?” and really mean it, not just a greeting and then LISTEN is so awesome.

    I was so blessed with my maid service continuing to come even though we couldn’t pay for it. I still can’t believe that she did that for me. One day I came home from one of my many surgeries and the maid service had been there. I cried to leave with dog hair all over the carpet and come home to a clean house was so amazing. I hope to one day be in the financial position to pay for maid service for a for friends/family with a cancer or other serious diagnosis.

    Thank you for writing this post. I’ll definitely be sharing it.

    • Kim says:

      I wanted to add that going for radiation therapy everyday was SO difficult. There was just no way to deny or forget that I had cancer when I was at the cancer center everyday Monday through Friday. Commuting was also difficult. It was 45 minutes each way. I was so beat up from all the chemo and still recovering from the surgery and dealing with complications from that. I think I even had to have a surgery in the middle of radiation. I love that your family accompanied you. I ended up making a “happy” , positive, fight playlist. The first time I ran it I was amazed when the playlist ended right when I turned into the cancer center. I’ll have to look for the playlist. I know it had Katy Perry Roar and American Authors “best day of my life”.

  6. Stefanie says:

    One of the many things I love about your blog is that you are authentic to me. I love reading different blogs, but sometimes I’m a bit frustrated because a lot of the content seems so shallow. I never have this feeling about your blog and I really appreciate that you share your story on here. My dad was diagnosed with dementia at a very early age and I experienced so many situations you’re describing in this post. I felt like people always meant well when I told them about my dad, but some reactions were/are really hurting, even if they don’t realized and really didn’t mean it at all. Especially the one “I know someone who has…” And instead of asking and being interested in your story, they tell the one of a distant family member or something.
    And you’re so right – as simple as it is – what counts most is for friends and family to just be there. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s amazing how you realize what “being there” really means, when you’re living in a situation where you need your people. I’ve been disappointed big time, but again, I don’t think people realized it or thought about it. They probably just didn’t know what to do. But really it is just about asking “How’s your dad?” Or “How are YOU!” Just a simple question can make you feel like someone cares, and that’s very important.
    I hope you and your family are doing well and enjoying life to the fullest.

  7. Jasilyn says:

    My mom has MS and when she was diagnosed with cancer I didn’t know what to do. I was living in Cincinnati (my mom in Cleveland). I remember picking my sister up from Toledo and we went home that weekend to be with her during her surgery. I asked my family for recipes so I could cook for her while I was there. Fortunately, she didn’t need chemo, but I know she had to drive to her radiation treatments which weren’t close either, and on top of that she doesn’t drive on the highway because of her MS.

    It was easy to deal with her cancer because she’s my mom and of course I’d do anything for her, but this is good advice if I’m put in a similar situation with friends or other family (which I pray doesn’t happen, but you never know). Thanks for sharing.