What to Say to Someone Whose Family Member Has Cancer

Community // March 8, 2018

When someone you know has cancer or has a loved one with cancer, it can be incredibly difficult to know what to say or do to show your support and help them. No matter how much you want to be there for them, it can be hard to navigate what to and not to do and say, or moments where it’s even better to not say anything at all.

At the end of the day, every cancer journey is unique. There is no one clear cut guide on how best to show your support to your friend and their family as they face such a difficult diagnosis. But keeping some of these tips in mind can help you feel more comfortable having these conversations and most importantly, be able to fully support your close friend at a time when they need it the most.

Simple Ways to Show Your Support

It can be hard to know what is ok to say versus what may be triggering or accidentally insensitive, but there are some easy actions you can take to show support and let your friend know you care.

Listening is most important. Being there for someone, no matter the situation, really depends upon hearing what they have to say before you could ever offer any advice or input into the scenario. Take your cues from your friend and let them guide the conversation. Don’t feel like you need to come in with a million questions or some kind of advice for how to deal with the diagnosis, especially when you may have never experienced a loved one having cancer. Simply listening and giving a shoulder for them to lean on can be the most comforting and supportive.

Sometimes a change of subject can be needed. Changing the topic to something lighter that you would normally talk about before cancer can help take their mind off of things and feel like life is still relatively normal. A good laugh with a best friend can have such a positive impact on their mental health. Being yourself with them and able to interact like you do on any given day can help you both feel more comfortable and relaxed. Though talking about the cancer diagnosis their family member is facing is important, be cognizant of when your friend doesn’t want to talk about anything cancer-related, which is the case for many.

Don’t ask if you can help – just help. It can be hard for your loved one to reach out to you and tell you what they might need, whether it’s running an errand or picking up their kids from school so they can be at the hospital with their family. Sometimes just offering to handle  some of these everyday household chores or doing little things without asking can make such a difference in their wellbeing and helps show how much you care.

When all else fails, one of the best things you can do is simply make sure your friend or loved one knows you love them and are available to help however you can. Sometimes the simplest sentiment of saying “I love you” or “I’m here for you” is really what matters the most.

Things to Avoid Saying and Doing

Though you mean well and just want to be a good friend in their time of need, there are certain things many of us may say or do that can actually cause more harm than good.

Don’t say things like “I know what you’re going through.” Even if you have had a loved one diagnosed with cancer or know of someone who has had cancer, every cancer experience is different and such a sentiment can come off as off-base. Even cancer patients with the same diagnosis or undergoing the same type of cancer treatment can have vastly different experiences, like side effects of their treatment. People cope in their own ways and there’s no way to really fully understand what your friend is going through, so it’s better to simply offer an ear to listen and let them know you’re there for support.

Don’t compare what they’re going through to other difficult situations. On a related note, trying to compare their new reality to other tough situations in life can also be rather insensitive. Trying to talk about your own problems or how their loved one’s life-threatening illness can relate to work issues or other difficult situations has a disconnect from what they are going through. Just as every cancer journey is unique, there is no real comparison to your friend’s situation.

Don’t tell others about what your friend is going through unless asked. Trust is important for any friendship, and it’s important to keep in mind that your friend may be confiding in you alone and isn’t ready for more people to be aware of the cancer diagnosis. Though it may seem like a helpful thing to inform others to provide opportunities for others to give support, it can cause a lot of mental and emotional strain if it’s going against your friend’s wishes. Only share details or news if and when your friend may ask you to, and only with the people they want to know.

Finding Support

Facing any diagnosis is difficult, whether it’s you, a loved one or a family member of someone you know. No one has to face cancer alone, and finding the right community or support group to get emotional support and share stories can be vital to getting through each day.

Simply being there as a friend can be exactly what they need to better cope. There are normal things we do in everyday life to let our long time friends know we’re there for them, like phone calls and texts or spur of the moment get togethers. Just by being yourself and being the same friend to them can mean the world during such a difficult time.

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