Coping With Emotions

How to Help a Friend With Cancer: 10 Ways to Lend a Hand

Learn what you can do when your dear friend has cancer.

Nobody knows quite what to do or what to say when they’ve just found out a dear friend has cancer. I wouldn’t know how to help a friend with cancer if I hadn’t had it, but because I have, I can tell you the best ways you can support your friend.

Acknowledge that it is terrible news

In addition to shock, a cancer diagnosis usually brings some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and, most of all, fear. Your friend needs to hear you acknowledge they are facing pain and uncertainty, and that it feels bad right now — even though you may think they need to hear you say something positive. Say, “Oh, that is sad news,” or even, “I don’t know what to say.”

Offer to help with something specific

You mean well when you say, “Let me know what I can do to help,” but you’re putting your friend on the spot to think of something you can do — and they’re worrying you won’t want to do it. Instead, make things easy and just offer the help specifically, such as taking the kids to the park or shuttling to an after-school activity, bringing over dinner or hiring some house cleaning help so your friend can say, “Yes,” and you can both feel good about it.

Call often

In my case, good friends call often and just ask, “How are you?” and they really mean it. Others will ask, “Do you want to tell me more about it?” if I mention something about the surgery, the hair loss or the leg pain, or even how much I love my favorite chemo nurse, Jill. They’re not offended if I don’t want to talk about it, and always have time if I do.

Be okay if your friend cries

Losing breasts (or any organ or body part), hair, a career, a husband, money, friends or an active lifestyle — or worse, knowing one’s life is ending (for stage IV patients) — really hurts and is very difficult. If your friend cries, just listen and be present without the dismissive positive platitudes, like “Just stay positive” or “Keep fighting!”

Softness always helps

Don’t know what to bring or send? Blankets, socks, wraps and shawls are perfect for anyone going through cancer treatments. That’s because the infusion center (where chemo is administered) and other treatment facilities, doctor’s offices and waiting rooms are often cold. Remember they feel crummy when undergoing treatment, too. Anything warm and fuzzy feels warm and fuzzy, and your friend will love it.

Visit whenever you can

Cancer patients can feel isolated by the treatment schedule and by not feeling well. Visiting friends are the very medicine for loneliness. Sitting and talking, watching movies, going out somewhere (if allowed) and just being there for a hug can make a huge difference in how your friend feels.

Get personal

Think about your friend’s favorite activity. Knitting, watching old movies or whatever it may be, do it with them. By participating and encouraging them to resume doing the things they love, you’re making a personal gesture that will delight them, feel good to you and help take their mind off cancer.

Talk about other cancer survivors

Don’t tell your friend how many people you know died of the same cancer they have. If you know other cancer survivors, talk about how they survived and thrived. If you think your friend needs to talk to a survivor, don’t hesitate to ask to put them in touch.

Talk about yourself

It gets boring talking about cancer all the time — for everyone involved. Tell your friend about your latest job, romantic adventure, new yoga class or your kids. Even the most basic life event for you might bring joy to your friend who has been deprived of normalcy.

Just say, “I love you”

When you don’t know how to help a friend with cancer, just tell them you love them.

Have you helped a friend with cancer? Share how in the comments below!

  • Sue W

    Hug! Oh how I needed a hug a bad old bear hug when I was told i was positive for uterine ca! No one around to give me one. I had support calls coming in from a breast cancer survivor friend and another friend and we linked up our phones just talking! One friend was out and about and getting into life head on and into her retirement. So we laughed plenty of times. Laughter heals!
    After surgery, fear! Scared! My roommate in pt rehab to get my abs going again and get me walking again,, well she was dying. Of cancer. There were times I just wanted to go over and hold her hand. Even tho I didnt know her. So after a day or two I was up in a chair, and said hi and told her my name. And that if she needed anyone or anything just let me know. She acknowledged it. Several nights later she died. The nurses all cried. They loved her so much! She was so very young. So if you know someone dont hold back! HUGS ARE HEALERS!!!! Dont just give one and forget the next time! HUGS HEAL! Hugs take away the pain! Sure a hug can hurt but it takes away the deep pain. The one down in our scared souls!

  • thegrrrr8est

    When my mother was dying, of all the flowers and meals and gifts that came our way, perhaps the best gift we got was a friend who came to take my dog for a walk every day. I was consumed with caring for Mama and it meant the world to me that someone would be so thoughtful. If you have a sick friend with a dog, you might also take over shopping for dog food and taking the dog to the vet if needed. It’s a small thing, but at these times, it’s a HUGE thing.

    • Pooch15

      That is just so cool! It really IS a huge thing. That is something, when I had a huge dog and he and I usually walked every day, I would have been very worried about having to neglect his walks. Very nice. Great tip.

  • Catherine Quinn

    When my dear friend, who like I, was a nurse, was going to NIH for a consult I offered to go with her and her husband – as the scribe. I documented everything and when something wasn ‘t clear asked a question. I did not offer any opinions – just the facts. When I got home I typed it all up and emailed it to her. She immediately called back saying that she had missed half of what was said and was so grateful to see the whole picture. We could then talk about it.

  • naomi mannino

    Totally agree that dog walks and dog care and HUGS are also great ideas that I also appreciated when I was going through it. And, like Catherine said, if you can accompany a friend to the doctor and take notes it can be SO helpful. Another thing I did for a dear friend I met during treatment and who became close was I accompanied her to her last chemo treatment. She was really emotional and it helped her pass the time and to laugh and cry with the chemo nurses and with someone who went through it with her side by side and knew exactly what she was feeling… thanks to everyone who shared and added to this list!

  • Silvia Hill-Harris

    Fighting for my life! 5 years with this horrible diease! Many surgeries and chemotherapy I’m still here fighting! ! #cancersucks

Naomi Mannino
Naomi Mannino