When someone you love shares the news that they have cancer, you may initially feel shocked. Your thoughts may turn to concern about your family member or friend, and you may wonder what you should say or what you can do to help.
First, know that your support is valuable. Research has found that social support from friends and family members strongly impacts the process of coping with cancer and can increase the person’s overall well-being.
“People who lack support are at an increased risk of mental health issues,” said Ashley Imburgia, a psychologist specializing in cancer care at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Support, on the other hand, can help them cope and improve their quality of life.” Dr. Imburgia offered some suggestions on ways you can help as well as things to avoid.
What to do
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, you may worry that you might say or do the wrong thing. Everyone’s situation is unique, but most people find these statements and actions help support someone with cancer:
- Play to your strengths. There are different types of support people can provide. Some people are better at practical assistance, such as preparing meals, taking care of the lawn or driving kids home from school. Others are more emotionally oriented and are better at being present and listening. “Figure out which one you have the bandwidth for and offer that type of support,” Dr. Imburgia said.
- Listen without judgment. Allow your loved one to share their feelings without interrupting or minimizing them. Acknowledge and validate what they are going through.
- Offer specific ways you can help. People often say, “Let me know if you need anything.” But the person with cancer may perceive that as an empty gesture or may not be able to think of what you could do. It can be hard for them to ask for help. Instead, you can offer concrete, practical actions — drive them to appointments, sit with them during chemotherapy treatments, walk their dog, watch their children, organize meal donations or help with household tasks.
- Provide entertainment they enjoy. When you’re being treated for cancer, you can have long stretches of time you need to fill. You can make a playlist for your loved one, bring over books or magazines, help your friend download movies to a tablet or provide crafts.
- Check in regularly. Your loved one may be able to manage their tasks at some stages of treatment and not at others. Make sure to offer support regularly.
- Put them in the driver’s seat. Your loved one knows what they can manage — let them decide if they can participate in activities. And provide alternatives. If they feel like the family birthday celebration will be too overwhelming, ask if they would like you to come by afterward to share photos and a slice of cake.
- Keep supporting them after cancer treatments are over. Your friend or family member may still need your help after they finish treatment. Don’t assume they are ready to tackle all their responsibilities right away.
- Remember the caregiver. The person who has the most responsibility for caring for the person with cancer needs your support, too. “They are often overlooked,” Dr. Imburgia said.
- Consider seeing a mental health professional. You may have strong emotions to process related to your loved one’s diagnosis and treatment. Talking to a counselor or therapist could help make you more available to support your friend or family member.
What to say to someone who has cancer
Most people with cancer find statements like these can make a positive impact:
- “I am here for you.” People with cancer may feel lonely and isolated. And some people may avoid the person with cancer because they don’t feel like they know how to show support or know what to say. You can reassure them by reminding them that you are there and checking in regularly.
- “I am here if you need to talk.” Not everyone wants to talk about cancer or their treatment. You can let them know you are there when they are ready to talk so that they can express themselves at their own pace and on their terms.
- “I’m sorry/sad you are going through this.” With this simple statement, you show empathy, concern and compassion. It’s OK to share some of your feelings with your loved one.
- “Can I tell you about…” Your conversations don’t have to be all cancer, all the time. Make time for the types of conversations you shared before the diagnosis of cancer. Fill them in on your daughter’s basketball game, the new restaurant you just tried or the argument you had with your boss. Giving your loved one a break from difficult topics can provide a sense of normalcy, balance and connection.
- “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know how much I care.” It’s OK to admit that you don’t know what to say or do. What’s important is that you stay connected with your loved one.
What not to say to someone with cancer
Of course, you want to support your loved one, and you mean well. But some things people often say to others who have cancer don’t have the hoped-for effect. Here are a few things to avoid.
- “Everything will turn out OK.” You and your loved one may hope this statement is true, but you can’t know for sure. Saying it may minimize the way they feel about possible adverse outcomes. Instead, try, “I hope things go well for you.”
- “I know how you feel.” No two people process illness the same way, so even if you had the same type of cancer, you can’t truly know how your loved one is feeling.
- “You are so strong/positive.” These well-intentioned statements may make your loved one feel as though they can’t share when they are feeling down or discouraged. Instead, remind them they will have good and bad days and that you are there to support them.
- “Here’s what you should do.” Your loved one is probably seeing multiple health care professionals and possibly doing their own research. More advice can make them feel confused and overwhelmed. Ask for permission first if you have a suggestion they might like to hear. If they agree, you can offer advice.
- “My friend had cancer and…” Everyone’s experience with cancer is unique. It’s best not to compare your loved one’s situation to the experience of somebody else you know. “While it is tempting to share stories of experiences with cancer, oftentimes these can lead to more fear,” Dr. Imburgia said. That’s especially true if the other person had a negative experience or outcome.
- “At least it’s not…” Your loved one is dealing with the fear and anxiety of coping with cancer. Imagining worse possibilities doesn’t ease their worries.
- Nothing. Saying nothing to your loved one can make it seem as though you don’t care, or you don’t perceive their diagnosis as significant.
The bottom line
When a loved one has cancer, it can be challenging to know what to do and say to support them best. The most important thing is to make sure they know you are thinking of them, and that you are there for them.
Need help supporting a friend or family member who has cancer?
Schedule an appointment with a psycho-oncologist.