A cancer diagnosis is devastating for all concerned. Naturally, the person receiving the diagnosis is likely to be feeling shocked, confused, anxious, scared and above all completely overwhelmed. But it can also be an extremely difficult time for friends and family too. Even though you want to offer help and support, it can be hard to know what to say or do.
It’s important to remember there are no set rules and every relationship is different but we hope the following 5 tips will give you some ideas of how you can best support a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer.
1. Whatever you say, say something
Our first piece of advice to anyone in this situation, is that no matter how difficult you are finding things, don’t just disappear. Watching a loved one go through cancer is distressing, but it’s surely not as distressing as actually going through cancer yourself. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is truly life changing, it’s not written into any of our life plans and your friend is likely to be feeling scared, lonely and overwhelmed and now is the time when they need your support the most.
It’s understandable to worry that you might say the wrong thing and accidently hurt your friend’s feelings or somehow make things worse and the temptation may be to avoid the situation altogether. After all, they know that you care about them, don’t they? But trust us when we say, we’ve spoken to lots of cancer patients and without fail they all say that they have been far more upset by friends that have simply disappeared, than those that have said something awkward or inappropriate.
Cancer is the elephant in the room and to not acknowledge it, is more hurtful than anything you could ever do or say. It’s also OK to tell your friend that you don’t know what to say - chances are they don’t know what to say either. Similarly it’s OK to admit that you’re mad, scared, anxious, upset…, because chances are they are too. Above all phrases such as ‘I’m here for you’ and ‘we’ll do this together’ will mean an awful lot at this time.
2. Process your own emotions
Learning that a friend has cancer can be difficult news to hear, so it can be helpful to process your own emotions before seeing your friend. You need to take time to acknowledge and cope with your own feelings about the diagnosis and it can be helpful to learn a bit more about the diagnosis and think about the situation from your friend’s perspective. That way when you see your friend, you will be better equipped to keep the focus on them. Many cancer patients have told us they have ended up comforting their friends instead of it being the other way round.
It may also help if you prepare yourself for changes in your friend’s appearance. Fatigue, weight loss and hair loss are common side effects of cancer and can cause startling appearance changes. If you are prepared for this you can start your visit by saying “It’s good to see you” instead of blurting out a comment about your friend’s appearance, that they are already likely to be incredibly self-conscious of.
If it’s taking you a while to process your own emotions and you’re not ready to see your friend in person just yet, or they’re simply not feeling up to a visit, there are plenty of other way that you can show your support. Many cancer patients have told us that they really appreciated receiving text or email messages, letting them know that people were thinking of them, but making it clear that a reply wasn’t expected. And whilst we would recommend staying away from the more traditional ‘Get Well Soon’ cards (people’s initial reaction when they receive a cancer diagnosis is often concern that they may never ‘get better’), many people have told us they appreciated a hand-written card or note that they could read in their own time when they felt up to it, but that they could also refer to time and time again.
3. Don’t put any pressure on them
If your friend has only just received a cancer diagnosis they are likely to have to wait for the results of further tests in order to identify the tumour type, location, extent and stage, which will all help to determine a personalised treatment plan. Waiting for these results is unbearable and your friend may well be full of scenarios of doom and gloom. Knowing that you have cancer, but not yet knowing the full extent of the prognosis, coupled with the uncertainty of what treatment will be needed, and not having a plan to deal with the cancer is a truly awful period. So if your friend doesn’t text back, or ignores your calls for a while, let it slide and keep on trying. They are probably overwhelmed but are likely to be reading your texts and listening to your voicemails and really appreciating them.
Being flexible and understanding of cancelled plans is also really important. Your friend’s life is likely to be unpredictable for a while, so making plans that are easy to change in case they need to cancel or reschedule because of new hospital appointments or because they don’t have the energy that day, will go a long way in terms of showing you understand what they are going through.
Giving them the option to join for a short while, or to say “no thank you”, rather than excluding them outright is a nice way to show support. Many cancer patients tell us that because they decline so many social invites, after a while friends no longer invite them along and just assume that the answer will be no, which just adds to their feelings of isolation.
4. Be normal but allow for sadness
This seems like common sense, but it’s important to mention. Many cancer patients explain that they don’t want people to treat them differently because of their cancer diagnosis. They are exactly the same person now as they were before their diagnosis and they want to be treated the same. So, if you normally have a night out once a month, keep inviting your friend. She may not be able to go, but treating your friend the same way you always have will provide a welcome break from thinking about cancer.
It's also good to talk about topics other than cancer. Your friend will still be interested in what is happening in your life. So after you've asked how your friend is doing, and really listened, it's OK to talk about the latest happening in your life and the other things that you would normally talk about.
It's also important not to ignore the fact that your friend has cancer, because that wouldn't be normal either. IT's important to allow your friend to talk about their cancer and express their worries without ignoring uncomfortable topics or feelings. Listening without judgement is a good way to allow your friend to release sadness and they will be comforted that you are empathising with their emotions.
5. Offer practical support
There are many ways you can show someone you care about them through actions. The great thing about caring actions is that you feel like you have helped to carry some of the weight of your friend's burden. Even the most minor task can be more appreciated than you know.
It goes without saying that if you offer to help, then it’s important to follow through. Glib statements like “let me know if there’s anything I can do” are difficult for your friend to take up, particularly as most of us don’t like to ask for help from others. It’s far more meaningful to offer specific help, so instead of saying “do you need any shopping”, try contacting your friend in the morning to say “I’m going to the supermarket this afternoon, do you need me to pick up some milk or bread for you. It’s no bother as I’m going anyway”.
You could also offer to walk your friend’s dog or look after their children. Again try to phrase it in a way that makes it as easy for your friend to accept as possible. “Would you like me to pick your children up from school and take them to football practice on Thursday?” is far easier for your friend to accept than a vague “let me know if you want me to have your kids”.
Many cancer patients have told us that the best support they received was when friends left a home cooked meal on the doorstep. Even if your friend doesn’t feel like eating, we’re sure the rest of their family will appreciate the thought, or your friend could put it in the freezer for low energy days. A top tip if you’re going to cook is to invest in some disposable containers to save your friend the hassle of having to return dishes.
Another way you could help is to offer to take your friend to some of their numerous medical appointments or even attend their appointments with them (coronavirus restrictions permitting). Their care team will be sharing a lot of information and the terminology and language is likely to be unfamiliar. It can be helpful to take someone along to take notes, ask questions if appropriate and generally help them remember all that was said, but of course, don’t be upset if your friend doesn’t accept this offer.
You could also offer to be your friend’s ‘nominated person’. Telling different people repeatedly about a cancer diagnosis can be emotionally draining, so you could offer to be a single point of contact to keep wider friends and colleagues informed.
No one should face cancer alone
A cancer diagnosis is scary, and it can bring with it a paralysing fear, especially when the person involved is close to you. Our overriding advice to support your friend during through this is to simply be there, no matter what that looks and feels like for your individual relationship. It may well be difficult, distressing and uncomfortable at times, but no matter how difficult it is for us to watch our loved ones suffer, no one should face cancer alone and now, more than ever before, your friend needs their support team behind them.
CancerPal sells a range of Cancer Empathy Cards that can help you find just the right words to say to a loved one going through cancer as well as a range of Just Diagnosed Care Boxes containing practical gifts to help distract, ease stress & anxiety and channel positivity & inner strength.