How to Support a Friend Diagnosed with Cancer
When you hear a friend say those gut-wrenching words “I have cancer” the first reaction is one of shock, followed by awkwardness as you search for the right words. You will probably end up saying, “If there is anything I can do, just let me know,” because you really have no clue what to say or do.
Unfortunately, it is rare that someone will let you know what they need. They may not actually know, or if they do, to find themselves in a place where they need so much help might be embarrassing or even humiliating. Others don’t want to become a burden and may wait until they are really desperate and have no other choice but to accept help. This could be months down the line.
As a friend, this can be frustrating when you genuinely care and want to help. How do you navigate sensitively around these issues so you can provide meaningful support? Here are a few tips on how to support a friend diagnosed with cancer…
It’s about them not you
Offering to help someone can be tricky and you might not always get the response you are expecting.
Chris, a cancer survivor, says “sometimes it felt like a burden when a friend would say, ‘Really, you must tell me something I can do for you or I’d never forgive myself for not helping you.’ So not only do I have cancer, but now I have to find something for you to do so that you feel better about yourself as a friend.”
Be sensitive to the fact that it’s about what your friend or loved one needs, and not what you need to feel better. If they say they don’t need any help, it may actually be true. Instead, offer an open-ended invitation to a coffee and a chat anytime they need one.
Mean what you say
Cancer treatment can last for months and it’s often much later when the cumulative effects start to take their toll that help is really needed. But often it’s too hard and too late for your friend to go back and say yes to those offers that came pouring in at diagnosis. They may be long forgotten and some friends may have disappeared altogether.
“It’s almost worst when they offer but don’t follow through… the empty promises. They know I’m still sick in hospital and that it’s getting worse, but they haven’t got back to me. Don’t promise if you’re not going to fulfil that promise,” says Greg, who underwent treatment for blood cancer.
If you’re going to offer, mean it, commit to it, and follow through. Continue to offer that support long after diagnosis. Set yourself a recurring reminder in your phone to check in with them every few weeks by text, and repeat your offers to help often.
Most people attempt to do things for themselves than ask for help. They don’t want to feel obligated to anyone or be a burden. If you think is true in your case, reassure them they are doing you the favour.
Be really specific about what you can do and when, whether it’s the laundry, picking up the kids from school, or helping with grocery shopping. Just make a list and give it with them so they can refer to it anytime a need arises.
“I had a lot of friends who texted and said ‘just let us know what we can do’. But we didn’t know what times worked for them and so it was quite tricky,” cancer survivor Hannah Dhanaraj explained in a recent interview on the AM show. “[People need to be] more specific, and actually do as much as they can possibly do. That’s what helped in my experience.”
With Swathe.me it’s really easy to make a list of things you can help with and share it with your friend so they know whom to turn to for something they need
Be a friend. Take them out for lunch, to the movies, an exhibition or to a garden centre café.
Considering keeping them company at their chemo sessions. This can often be a lonely time and not the most pleasant of experiences. Talk about the things you’ve enjoyed doing in the past. “Remember when…..”
For Joan, cancer survivor, the night times were especially hard. “It would have been nice to have a sleep over or if not that, at least some visits until bed time. I wanted to not be alone in the evening, first year especially. During radiation I was so full of fear and it’s hard to admit you are afraid.“
Put yourself in their shoes and think how you might feel in the same situation. Be available, make it easy, and be yourself.
Stay in touch
One of the hardest things for your friend is the feeling of being forgotten. They are hidden from society when they are no longer able to fully take part in life. There is that sense of worthlessness that comes helplessness.
So text often for no other reason than to say ‘Hi’. Chat about your day, the kids/grandkids, every day things etc. And let them know there is no obligation to reply, they can respond as and when they feel up to it.
Text and phone calls can help your loved one feel included and part of what is happening without being intrusive. They also let your friend know how important they are to you and that you still care.
It’s not always easy to know what to say and it can be awkward.
“On the phone or a face to face visit admitting to me that they did not know what to say would have been great, then we could laugh and carry on then talk. Or just simply asking me did I want to talk about it. Yes I did want to, very much but I thought they would regret coming over or calling if I started there,” recalls Cammarata, a breast cancer survivor.
It’s better to acknowledge the situation rather than pretending it’s not happening. “I hate that this is happening to you”, and “I don’t know what to say” are useful phrases that express empathy and love, whilst acknowledging at the same time that this is not easy for anyone.
When spending time with them, oscillate between the past and the immediate future such as asking what books they’re reading, the show’s they’re watching etc. Sometimes they just need a mental break from cancer and what it’s doing to them physically.
Ask before you visit
Whether visiting someone at home or in the hospital, text or phone to check it’s ok first. If they don’t return your phone call or email, don’t take it personally.
“Being sick is unpredictable,” says Cammarata. “Give your friend permission to say no to a visit, and be flexible and understanding when someone who is sick may call and cancel at the last-minute.”
Check that you are not overstaying your welcome. Your friend may tire easily and you don’t want them to feel obligated to entertain or come to dread your visits.
“ For most people going through cancer treatment is very energy sapping. There a bunch of stuff we can’t see happening in the body and the soul and it is exhausting. Come for a few minutes—I use 20 minutes as a good gage—and then leave.” Lou James, Pinc & Steel.
It should be the easiest thing in the world to just listen, but listening is a skill and not one that is practised often or well. When we truly listening we gain understanding, and with understanding comes empathy.
Julian Treasure in his Ted Talk, “5 Ways to Listen Better“, suggests using the acronym RASA:
“Receive means pay attention to what is being said. Show appreciation for what you are hearing by making little noises, e.g. hmmm or nodding your head. Summarise what is being said using the word ‘so’, and ask questions afterwards.“
Being listened to means feeling cared for and feeling loved. Giving of your time and complete attention can be the most meaningful gift you can give to someone and it doesn’t cost a thing.
Look after yourself
Not everyone has the emotional capacity to help a friend. It depends on your strength of character. You’re going into a vulnerable situation and often new territory. ‘Being there’ for your friend can be emotionally draining as you manage your own emotions as well as theirs.
It’s important to look after and protect yourself. Find someone you trust to offload to or write it all down in a journal.
Learn to walk alongside your friend with cancer. Dip your toe into the shoe, instead of putting your whole foot in. Know your emotional boundaries and what you have the strength to handle.
The best thing you can do for your friend with cancer is to be there. Stay in touch, call them regularly. Continue to offer help. And just listen. Make it about them not you. The greatest gift you can ever give is your time.
Do you know someone going through a difficult time?
Chances are they could really do with some practical day-to-day help but will struggle to ask for it.
Swathe.me makes it so easy to give practical support to someone you know, in a way that works for both you and them.
It’s really simple – you just make a list and share it. And it’s FREE!
CLICK HERE to make every day better for your friend today.