How to help a friend with cancer in 5 ways

How to help a friend with cancer - breast cancer ribbon

If you’re not sure how to help a friend with cancer or breast cancer, here are five tips that seem incredibly small but are actually hugely helpful and much needed.

When you’re at a loss for how to help a friend with cancer or a chronic illness

When a good friend or loved one gets a life-changing diagnosis like cancer, you be wondering: how can I help? Here’s how to support a friend who’s just received word of cancer and what to think about before you do.

1. Be emotionally present if possible, now and later

In our opinion, the greatest level of support you can offer a friend going through cancer and/or after treatment is to let him or her know that you’re emotionally available. Make it clear that you’re here. Tell your friend that no topics, concerns, or fears are off-limit. Be open to whatever she wants to share, and make an effort to listen without using phrases like “it’ll be okay.” Words like that can seem deflating to someone who is facing so much.

Does that feel too uncomfortable? You’re not alone. Cancer or hearing about a cancer diagnosis makes people feel a wide range of emotions. And that’s true even for those in supportive roles. Hearing that someone you care for is facing treatment, pain, or even death is difficult. Many of us are not emotionally prepared to confront illness or mortality. But, if that’s you: instead of shoving those feelings deep down, get curious. Why do I feel this way? How can I work through these feelings to support my friend?

2. Don’t disappear because you’re uncomfortable with the situation

Those feelings we just talked about? Sometimes this leads people to disappear or avoid discussing the situation. If you’re feeling this way, it may help to be open and honest with your friend. Let her know you this is incredibly difficult for her, and you’re having trouble with what to say or do.

3. If you can, offer to sit with her during treatment

Sitting for the length of chemo leaves a lot of time for your mind to wander. Feelings of worry, loneliness, and isolation are close by, especially when there aren’t many distractions. Ask your friend or loved one if it’s okay to come with for a treatment. Let her guide the conversation while you’re there.

4. Plan a little something special for the days post-treatment

Treatment days are just plain terrible. But what follows is even worse. Chemo leaves you wiped, nauseous, and with a lot of brain fogginess. Plus, while dealing with those symptoms, it’s hard to know the rest of the world is out carrying on as normal. Having someone leave a little pick-me-up, like flowers or a link to an audio book or just a simple note, can make all the difference in your friend’s mental outlook during those hard days.

5. Limit your own venting

Missed your workout? Forgot the kid’s lunches? Work presentation didn’t go as planned? We’ve all been there, and it stinks. Many of us take heart in knowing we can vent to our friends. But while your loved one is going through cancer, it’s a good idea to straight-up ask how she feels about hearing about stuff like this. Some say they love the distraction and that sense of normalcy. Others will have the thought: seriously, how can you be talking to me about that right now? And she may want you to share those everyday vents with a different pal for awhile.

Why asking permission is something we all should do again and again

With all of these tips–and others, like starting a meal train or putting together a GoFundMe–here’s the main key: ask permission before doing any of it. For some, their cancer journey is public and something they’re comfortable sharing and accepting help with. Others are much more private and only tell a select few. Talk with your friend about her needs and what she wants you to do–and how she wants you to do it. A good example of this is setting up a group to bring over meals. This can be so helpful, but your friend may not want company each time a meal arrives. Get her opinion of if she wants the meals left on the porch and communicate that with your group. Check in often and see if her feelings, wants, and needs are the same or if she would feel better with a few changes.