It can be very challenging when someone you care about is faced with cancer. No matter what this brings up for you, be assured that what they’re going through is worse. When a person is dealing with a life-challenging diagnosis, along with common treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy, it’s the time for friends and family to front up and be supportive. But how can you help them, especially when you’re feeling sad or nervous?
Here are some tips from someone who has gone through treatment for cancer, backed up by many others who’ve shared their experiences. Keep in mind that each one of us is unique and we all react differently. While some people sail through chemo or radiation treatment, others on the same regime may struggle to get out of their bed. There’s no “right” or “wrong” reaction, but a sensitive and supportive friend can make the world of difference.
How to help
Keep in touch. It’s cancer not the plague. A frequent comment from people who’ve had/have cancer is the pain caused by a good friend going AWOL when they need them most.
So, let go of your own fears – it’s not about you.
If you can offer tangible help, do so. “Let me know if I can do anything to help”, sounds useful but offering something practical that you can follow through with is more so. Such as:
- “I’d love to cook you (and your partner/family) a meal, what feels good to eat at the moment?” (treatment can change the taste of food, swallowing or digestion).
- “I’m free on Friday, do you need a lift/company during treatment?”
- Direct offers of shopping/cleaning/laundry/gardening, etc can be very welcome.
- Offer to co-ordinate your friends offers of help, or initiate a gather my crew page.
If you’re too busy to help out – consider offering to pay for a cleaner, gardener, cook or food delivery but always check with your friend first that they want this. Be sensitive as it can be very humbling to accept this help.
Check that’s it’s convenient before visiting. It is fine to text and say “are you up for a visit?” but don’t be offended if you don’t get a reply. Keep visits short, unless you’re genuinely asked to stay longer. An hour can be a long time sit up and play host after surgery, or when you don’t feel well. It’s important to delay your visit if you (or your children) have an infection. Many cancer treatments can compromise immunity and an innocuous infection can be life threatening.
Feeling unwell or going through time consuming treatment is boring. Some people find things that used to give them pleasure, like reading, are surprisingly difficult at this time. Digital downloads, DVDs, podcasts and audiobooks may be easier to enjoy.
Keep in mind that some conventional treatment, like chemotherapy makes some people super-sensitive to aromas. If you’re unsure, avoid scented gifts.
Some things that aren’t helpful
Try to avoid commenting on the person’s appearance, despite the compulsion to tell them how well they look (“you look great” when you know you look like crap, what they really mean is you don’t look like you’re dying) or that “no one would know you’re wearing a wig”.
Also hold back on sharing the latest miracle cure you read about or your mother swears by. Likewise offering prayers, unless that’s what the person requests. Resist the urge to say, “You’ll be fine/beat cancer – I just know it” or telling someone to fight cancer or be strong.
Don’t let cancer be the elephant in the room by ignoring the subject. However, whether someone feels like talking about it may vary from day to day.
“Don’t ask ‘How are you?’ Ask ‘How are things?’ Don’t ask about treatment or if the cancer is curable. Don’t volunteer stories about yourself or other patients, and don’t tell the patient what to think or feel or do,”
Wendy Schlessel Harpham
Keep in mind that things don’t necessarily return to ‘normal’ after treatment. Not everyone is “cured”. Some people living with late stage cancer may be on chemotherapy or other treatments for the rest of their lives, or remission may be brief. Even with successful treatment the physical and emotional side-effects can be long lasting.
If your friend lives alone, is the breadwinner (or their partner has taken time off work), the bills still need to be paid. Most people will be too proud to talk about money, but be sensitive that their income maybe greatly reduced for some time.
Just because someone has a life challenging illness or invasive treatment, their personality usually remains the same. Remember they’re still your friend/colleague/neighbour/sister.
More ways to support someone with cancer
- Things not to say to someone with cancer (short video).
- The Jar of Joy (great TedX video)
- NPR The unexpected side effects of chemotherapy – a fascinating radio show about what people didn’t expect from chemo.
- NYTimes What to say to someone with cancer
Updated January 2020
Gill Stannard is a naturopath and mentor with almost 30 years clinical experience. In 2013 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and shared her experiences in a series of articles about life after cancer. She remains cancer-free and works with clients in Sydney, Melbourne and online. While Gill works with people of all ages and health conditions, she has a special interest in helping people recover from the chemotherapy, life after a cancer diagnosis and menopause.