How to Support a Friend Through Cancer Treatment

October 17, 2022

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Holly S. Mason, MD Holly S. Mason, MD View Profile
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Finding out that a friend has cancer can be surprising and upsetting. You may be wondering if your friend will be okay or how you can help.

Cancer is a treatable disease. While your friend may have a long and unexpected road ahead, there are many reasons to be optimistic. There have been huge advances in treatment and care for people with cancer. While treatment is a daily challenge, there are ways to help.

Everyone with cancer deals with it differently. Depending on age, responsibilities, career status, family needs and existing support systems, your friend likely needs different kinds of care and attention at different times.

“I tell my patients with breast cancer that breast cancer care is a team sport,” says Dr. Holly Mason, Section Chief for Breast Surgery at Baystate Health. “There will be multiple members of the breast cancer team in terms of physicians, nurses and navigators; family and friends are an incredibly important part of that team, as well.”

Your friend may need to lean on you a little. Or they might look to you to be a major anchor. The level of support may change as your friend progresses through treatment.

Here are steps you can take to help them and tend to your own feelings.

How to cheer up your loved one

Every person is unique, so cheering someone up isn’t one-size-fits-all.

You can try:

  • Calling or texting: A cancer diagnosis can be isolating. Your friend may appreciate you reaching out.
  • Visiting in person or through video chat: Ask ahead of time so you know they’re available, schedule-wise and emotionally.
  • Volunteer to help: Whether you’re their point person or just available for certain tasks, offering your time can really take the burden off your friend.
  • Bringing over a thoughtful gift: Show your loved one you care with a little something special.

Keep in mind, you may not be able to cheer your friend up. But it’s important to make an effort.

What can you say to a loved one with cancer?

Reassure without promises

No one knows the future. Be supportive by saying something like, “I’m here for you, and I will continue to be here for you, no matter what.” Promising it will all be okay may ring false to your friend. Knowing they can count on your support will give them additional strength.

Check in but don’t push

Doctors often tout the benefits of minimally invasive surgery methods. A text or email is a minimally invasive communication method. It lets your friend know you’re thinking of them without pressuring them to reply.

Check in on your friend regularly. You can say something like, “You don’t need to respond. Just wanted to let you know I’m thinking about you.”

Know what not to say

There are a lot of things you shouldn’t say to someone with cancer.

Have some empathy and use your judgement. You don’t want to rub their diagnosis in their face, gloss over their situation, force them to think about their chances of survival, or compare suffering.

The New York Times outlines some examples of bad phrasing and topics to bring up, including:

  • “It will be okay.”
  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “I have another friend with cancer who died.”
  • “You should be happy you have this type of cancer instead of this other worse cancer.”
  • “You probably got cancer because of your smoking habit.”
  • “I heard about this unproven experimental treatment that might work on you.”

Don’t make yourself an additional sore spot in your loved one’s life by making inconsiderate comments.

How do you help a loved one with cancer?

It can be confusing to know what to do when a friend or family member has cancer. If you are going to help out, you want to make sure you’re not inadvertently adding to their troubles.

Find or become the captain

Your friend is juggling appointments, concerns about family and other demands. They may be overwhelmed by a barrage of well-meaning messages. They also don’t want to end up with ten full sized lasagnas in the fridge because friends didn’t coordinate.

Find a main point of contact they can rely on — or become that person. Funnel all offers of help through the “captain,” who communicates to the group about your friend’s needs and wants.

Be specific

Many people offer to help but a person dealing with the challenges of cancer treatment can’t always tell you exactly what they need. Remove the burden of yet another decision or choice by being as specific as possible with your offers:

  • “I’m bringing pizza on Friday night. Is there a particular place your family likes?”
  • “I’ll drive your carpool on Mondays and Thursdays.”
  • “Would your daughter like to come over to play on Sunday morning?”

Help them find a support system

A friend with cancer is still your friend. While they may be dealing with a challenge, they still want you by their side. Provide hope by creating and taking part in a support system that encourages your friend to focus on healing.

Seek out support groups. Here are some in-person and virtual options in western Massachusetts:

What can you get a loved one with cancer?

If your friend is facing chemotherapy or surgery, consider purchasing things they may need. A small, thoughtful gift can bring cheer to a friend facing the unknown.

Some suggestions:

  • Blanket, soft pillow or fuzzy socks
  • Netflix or Hulu subscription
  • Magazines
  • Nail polish, hand cream or lip balm
  • Head wraps
  • Ginger candies to help with nausea
  • Personalized tote bag

How does cancer affect friends and family?

The National Cancer Institute shares some of the ways supporting a family member through cancer can have a major impact on your life:

  • Financial: Treatments can be expensive and learning about health insurance options can be overwhelming. Learn how to manage medical costs.
  • Living Arrangements: You may need to hire in-home help or move the sleeping arrangements around to make your loved one more comfortable.
  • Lack of Support: Not everyone in your life will have the time or the emotional bandwidth to be there to help you navigate your loved one’s diagnosis. This can be very disappointing. Consider joining a support group online so you can get the assistance and encouragement you need. Talk to a friend, partner or someone who has supported a friend through cancer.
  • Updating Medical Family History: If you’re blood related to your newly diagnosed loved one, update your doctor with any new information you have. They can review your own risk factors and gives you tips for healthy living.

It’s okay to focus on your own wellbeing. All these changes can be stressful and emotionally taxing, so practice self-care and make time to relax. You can write in a journal, spend extra time with loved ones, and focus on gratitude.

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