How to Help a Friend with Cancer
When someone we loosely know or intimately love gets diagnosed with cancer, it’s very shocking and scary. We want to help. We don’t know how to help. We want to be the person who says THE MOST PERFECT and helpful, profound advice that somehow makes what they’re going through SO much easier. After working with cancer patients for over 12 years, I’m going to shoot you very straight. Below is a list of the best things to say (YES, there are great things to say!) and do (yes! There really are things you can do!).
What to say to someone you casually know with cancer:
First and most importantly, treat them normally. Talk to them like you would any time before you know they had cancer. If you usually would ask about their kid, ask about their kid. If you both love sports, talk about whatever game happened recently.
Follow their lead. If they bring up their cancer diagnosis or treatments in conversation, then it’s (appropriate) fair game. If they mentioned they are really tired from treatments you could say something like “I’m so sorry to hear that! That must make everything really tough,” or “What has been the hardest part about feeling tired all the time?”
The whole “doing things to help them” thing can be rough because you don’t know them very well. You could say something like “I heard of a great chicken soup recipe! Please let me know if there is a day this week I can drop it off.” If you are close enough to have their cell phone number, you could offer to do ancillary things like text them the next time you are at Target to see if they need anything. You can ask if they have a GoFund me page and donate whatever you can (even $10 can be a nice gesture).
You can see the below list of things to do but I would be careful with visits. If you are dropping off food, leave it at their doorstep unless they really insist you come in. If you do visit, keep it to 10-12 minutes MAXIMUM unless they beg you to stay. (They are TIRED and you know what is exhausting? Having company over for most people). This goes for someone in the hospital too.
What NOT to say to someone you casually know with cancer:
You may want to find out what type of cancer they have, because maybe you have had friends/family with cancer and want to see if they have a similar kind. The main issue with the thoughts that usually pop into our heads when we get uncomfortable is that it’s all about… YOU (or me!).
Don’t ask them what type of cancer they have. Think about it: Rectal, Anal, Breast, Ovarian, Vulvar, Testicular, Prostate… these are all body parts that are considered private and usually we don’t like to talk about our private parts, wether or not they have cancer. (I’m guilty of this one myself because I work in the field and may know about the treatment they may be receiving, but I shouldn’t be asking and need to work on this one).
Don’t talk about whoever else you know with cancer: For some reason this one usually ends up with the person that you knew with cancer died (and WHY would this person want to hear about your friend who died?!).
Don’t talk about your own cancer experience unless they ask: This is again with the vein with the conversation is now back talking about you. If they have no idea you have had cancer and you really would love to chat with them you can say “I went through breast cancer treatments. If you ever want to hear what was helpful for me, please let me know!”
Don’t try to give advice unless they ask.
DO NOT (under any circumstances) try to guess what may have contributed to them getting cancer (just DON’T) or, on the flip side, don’t go on about how they shouldn’t have gotten cancer “but you worked out/ ate so healthy/ never smoked/ etc.”
What to say to your close friend or family member with cancer:
“I don’t know what to say.” This is ONE THOUSAND times better than not saying anything or avoiding your friend.
Try to listen. It may be hard for them to open up, but if you stop focusing on what you can say that is encouraging/important/helpful and try to focus on your friend- they are 10x more likely to open up.
The number one thing I’ve heard from patients is that their friends/family just start treating them like a cancer patient, not a normal person. Ask them regular questions like “have you seen any good movies lately?” or whatever you would normally talk about with them. TREAT THEM NORMALLY!
Don’t ask, tell. Tell them you would love it if they called anytime, day or night to vent. Tell them you love them and are so very sorry this is happening. Tell them they are strong (and all of the other positive things you know about them). Tell them you aren’t going to leave when the going gets tough. Tell them you would love to pick up their laundry and drop it off in the evening, when is a good time to come by? Tell them you are headed to Target, what is on their list? Tell them you would love to have their kids over for a sleepover this weekend. Tell them you have a certain day off and would love to help with rides. You could also make coupons with all of these practical ways to help! It’s really hard for anyone to take up another person on their offer to help, so be specific and ask more than once.
Ask specifically “Is there anything in particular you’re anxious about that I can pray for?” (If you are religious and actually will pray). That’s a great way to find info out that you can follow up on later, “Hey! How was the MRI? Were you as claustrophobic as you thought you might be?”
What NOT to say to your close friend or family member with cancer:
(you can see above- similar goes for close friends)
Don’t give advice unless they ask for it. This one is BIG and this one is HARD. You may have had cancer or someone you know have had cancer and you or they found the BEST THING EVER! I always tell patients that every individual is different. You can have two people, the same age/gender, with the same exact cancer diagnosis (say stage 2 colon for example) and those patients will have a COMPLETELY different experience going through treatment.
“I’ll pray for you.” (See above- this one can come off ingenuine).
Some ideas of things you can do:
Send them cards, regularly (see above examples!) Emily McDowell Cards
Follow up on the offerings you made for Laundry Service/ Target Run/ Grocery Shopping/ Dropping off a meal IN A DISPOSABLE CONTAINER (that’s important!)
Visit Regularly (but not for more than 10-12 minutes unless they BEG you to stay) this goes for someone at home OR the hospital
Bring them little goodies, or ask them if any food sounds good and bring that
Put together a care package (see below)
When I was working as a Nurse Navigator and sitting in on the appointment where my patients found out for sure they had cancer, what the treatment would be and what to expect, it was VERY overwhelming for them. A lot of patients feel that the ‘waiting and not knowing’ is the hardest part. Once they find out the plan, it feels like everything is finally moving along.
I thought if I was Oprah, what would I want to include in a tote for each of my friends starting chemo? Want to know the best part? All of these companies below GAVE ME dozens of each of these products to give to my patients. Not to gain Instagram followers, not for publicity, just in private for my patients starting chemo. This was 5 years ago and I am thrilled to brag about them now. I have never felt more inspired by small businesses wanting to help on a human level and had never believed in the good of others as much as seeing the boxes of donations rolling in.
Ideas of great gifts for someone starting chemo:
An Eyemask: it’s hard to sleep and this is super comfortable and helped me nap during the day. Bucky 40 Blinks Eyemask ($14.95)
A cute water bottle: one of the top things we ask our patients to do is drink a ton of water)! LifeFactory Water Bottle ($19.95)
A billion Baggus: Schlepping in and our of the car, treatment, and tests means you have a ton of stuff to tote around. These bags are so cute and playful and fold up real tiny. As a mom, I live in and out of Baggus. BIG Baggu ($14, the $10 standard ones are great too!) You can wrap her care package in one of these too!
Nice smelling hand lotion: going through treatment you can smell a lot of awful things and taste can change so find a scent she likes and find her some lotion for hands, plus chemo dries out your skin. McEvoy Ranch Ode Hand Lotion (SO decadent $14)
A nice candle: taking a bath will help her relax or just lighting a nice candle- cancer is very stressful and any little thing to relax helps! Gojo Tarocco Orange Petite (another lady named Traci started this awesome candle company near Disneyland! $9)
Hand Sanitizer: This can be a difference of life or death. This is my favorite scent/brand. EO Lavender Hand Sanitizer Gel ($20 for a pack of 6!)
If you know of his/her favorite place to eat you could get a gift card or a card to DoorDash, etc.
Cozy slippers: days after chemo you want to hang low and cute and good quality slippers are such a great staple. A great gift to go in on with a group too) Ugg Slippers . OK this one wasn’t donated, but I didn’t ask so I like to think they totally would have.
If your friend is having surgery, all the above would be amazing, plus a fancy pillow. If you can only bring him/her one thing while they are in the hospital and you want to treat them, get them a nice pillow. Actually, two things… they really need the eye mask too. It makes a world of difference and sleep is scarce in hospitals, as ironic as that sounds. Travel Duo Bed Pillow ($57)
Other ideas are a cute head scarf if she is losing her hair, earrings, fuzzy socks, etc. (anything to pamper her!) You can send her a little something every few weeks or bring a little something with you when you visit.
I hope the above is helpful and an informative jumping off point for you! Anyone who read this has a golden heart and the fact that you wanted to read this means you are already very well on your way to being the most amazing, loving, supportive friend to someone going through cancer treatments!