6 ways to support a friend with cancer – what they wish you knew

Supporting a friend through a cancer diagnosis is a difficult thing and it can be very hard to know where to start and how to understand how they’re feeling. We’ve put together the following points to help, based on the feedback of many of our readers. Well done on taking the first step to supporting your friend by clicking on this article!

  1. Be there for them – at a pace you can sustain – all the way through their journey. Be aware this is not a month or two but rather more likely, a year or two or even more. A cancer journey is a marathon, not a sprint, and they’ll need your support and friendship through every stage of it and after. Whatever happens, don’t disappear – this is something that many readers have been in touch with us to say they have experienced, and your friend will find this devastating. They need you now more than ever. If you find it all too much to cope with, note the first sentence here and support them at a pace you can sustain all the way through. If you can’t manage to be their shoulder to cry on in the middle of the night all the way through, at least be a regular coffee morning once a month to catch up on their progress. Do what you can manage.
  2. Don’t compare their diagnosis or journey to someone else’s, if you can help it. Every cancer journey is different, no matter how similar they might seem. This sounds obvious but, if you do share another person’s experience with your friend, make sure it is positive. We’ve also had readers get in touch about friends who have shared devastating news about others going through cancer with them. This will rock even the strongest of people to the core if they are in the middle of their own journey, so tread carefully.
  3. Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing (other than the point above!). In fact, don’t treat your friend any differently than before. They still feel like a ‘normal’ person and want your friendship to remain the same. Support them by asking them how they are, and if they want to talk about it. Listen to their fears and concerns, just be there for them. Provide encouragement for each little step of progress along the way. Help them where you can see they need help and try not to dismiss their worries or fears flippantly or explain away their feelings. You don’t have to provide solutions. Just listen and acknowledge. Take your lead from them and talk as much or as little about cancer as they want to. Sure you might put your foot in it from time to time, but being there for them through the difficult moments will mean more to them than any silly thing you might come out with along the way.
  4. Once their treatment has completed, don’t forget about their cancer experience and try to move on, unless they do. Often the hardest part of a cancer experience is the period after treatment has ended, as a survivor gets to grips with what has just happened, and what the future will bring. They will need you now too. Many readers have reported friends and family telling them, “Well done, it’s all over, it’s time to move on with your life” – please don’t say this to your friend unless they are saying it first. Rather, ask them how they feel after everything they’ve been through and where they’d like to go from here. If their cancer treatment was successful, that’s great, but they’re unlikely to be the same person they were before their diagnosis. Try to imagine being in their shoes. They faced a life-threatening illness and all of the fear and uncertainty that comes with that. Cancer is life-changing, without a doubt. It might make your friend change their life entirely, or it might not, but it is unlikely they will be unchanged after it all. It is not something they will be able to process quickly and ‘move on’ from hastily, at least, not successfully. Many readers have reported months and months of counselling was necessary after their treatment had ended to try to process the trauma of it all.
  5. Bring them casseroles! This one’s a practicality. Chemo is tough and tiring. Surgery knocks the stuffing out of you. Radiotherapy is easier but also a long and tiring treatment plan. After it’s all done, your friend will feel well and truly worn out. This is when they’ll need your help – make them freezer meals, offer to help once a week with house chores, grocery shopping or changing beds. Offer help, and offer again, because it may be refused at first (we all have pride!). And keep offering because eventually it will be accepted. Many of our readers have reported great support at the outset of their treatment, in the first month or two, but that this support then disappears as friends think you’ve got a handle on things. However, the opposite is often true, as things often get harder along the way. If your friend has kids, offer to babysit occasionally so they can get some quality time with their partner – cancer is hard on relationships and quality ‘couple’ time will be greatly appreciated.
  6. Be patient and mindful with them. Your friend may experience side effects long after their treatment has ended, and every illness and ailment will be a cause for concern for them. Fatigue and forgetfulness after cancer treatment are both extremely common and your friend might not be able to do everything he/she did before for quite some time. Your friend may be on long-term hormone therapy (common for women who have had breast cancer, for example) for as long as even ten years and this may put them into menopause, sometimes much earlier than normal. This is particularly hard for younger women whose peers are often nowhere near menopause and all that it brings. So although their hair may have grown back and their main cancer treatments are over, your friend may still have a lot on their plate. Along with this, every other illness, from a common cold to an ear ache and everything in between, will be a cause for concern for them while they try to evaluate if it is just what it appears and nothing more sinister. Finally, try not to forget what they may have lost to cancer – their confidence, their fertility, their breasts, for example – and be mindful of this when necessary.

For further support resources that might be helpful for your friend, click here.

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