Helping a friend with cancer infographic

Helping A Friend With Cancer: What You Need to Know

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

So you have found out that a friend, colleague or loved one has cancer.  What do you do now?  The easiest thing is to not deal with it, just ignore it until you hear they are better or worse.  And there are many people who do just that, simply because they do not feel that they know how to react or possibly because they don’t want to face it.  But this is the worst thing you can do for someone who might need you right now.  Helping a friend with cancer does not have to be difficult.

This article highlights practical things you can do to help.  If you haven’t got time to read this now you can sign up for our FREE email course, which summarises what is said here in 3 daily emails.

You Need To Deal With Your Emotions First

It is normal to feel apprehensive, annoyed, angry, sad, guilty and/or scared when someone you know tells you they have cancer.What is important here is to recognise that you have these feeling and not let them interfere with your relationship.  Too many people ignore their own emotions which can result in them not focusing on the person with cancer in the right way.

If you do have any of these or other emotions associated with your friends’ cancer you can talk to people about this, but not your friend.  It is not OK to burden them with your emotions.  Telling them that you are scared or upset may seem like you are sympathising with them, but it can result in them feeling a need to comfort YOU.  This is a time for you to be there for them and not the other way around  To say that you are sorry for what they are dealing with can be enough.  You don’t have to let them know what you are really feeling.  If you’re feeling tearful, it is OK to explain this to your friend, but be brief. You may have to stay away until you can be there for your friend, without your friend having to comfort

How do you treat someone with cancer?

You treat them the same. Try not to let your friend’s condition get in the way of friendship and as much as possible, treat him or her the same way you always have.  Continuing friendships and regular activities after a cancer diagnosis is good for the healing process. But you need to remember that they also need encouragement and support before, during AND after treatment has finished. After any treatment, your friend will be trying to find his or her “new normal”. and your friendship is an important part of that.

Recognising Emotions Associated With Your Friend’s Cancer

How To Talk To A Person With Cancer: What To Say And Not To Say

It is OK if you don’t know what to say, there is no right or wrong way to talk to someone with cancer.  This is your friend who is ill, they may be scared or worried, they may be taking it in their stride.  The most important thing at this stage is not to worry about what you should say but to LISTEN.

Is there a right time to talk to someone with cancer?

Each person responds to their cancer diagnosis in their own way.  Some people just go about their daily business and ignore the cancer and some want to tell everyone every detail.  Most people are somewhere in between.  Sometimes, the person’s need to talk changes from day-to-day. So we would suggest that if they start the conversation, let them take the conversation where they choose. If they don’t start a conversation about their cancer it is OK to ask if they would like to talk about it. This is a respectful way to find out what they need.

How To Talk To A Person With Cancer

Let your friend know it’s okay if they don’t want to talk.

People with cancer don’t always want to think or talk about the disease. It may just be the wrong time or it may be always.  Sometimes talking about their cancer makes them identify a  “cancer patient” and this can strip away their self-identity.  If they don’t want to talk about their illness or treatments, talking about other things or having a joke (where appropriate) are often welcome distractions.

What is important is that you try to hear and understand how they are feeling.

Try to steer from the following unless asked to do so

 Giving advice.

It is hard to give good advice when you are not in the person’s shoes. It is much safer to ask questions or listen.

Discussing alternatives.

New/alternative treatments or cancer curing diets are usually not what a person with cancer wants to hear.  You may mean well but it is not required unless asked for.

Other peoples cancer.

Don’t talk about other people you know who have had cancer, unless you have an uplifting story that directly relates to the person you are talking to.

Things to remember when talking to someone with cancer

  • Don’t judge how they feel or act
  • Don’t make light of their feelings
  • Maintain eye contact to let your friend know you are really present and listening carefully.
  • Put your own feelings and fears aside.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk with your friend. It is better to say, “I don’t know what to say” than to not be there for them.
  • Be OK with silence. Talking because you’re nervous can be irritating and silence can help your friend to focus their thoughts. They may have a lot going on in their minds.

Be yourself and try not to worry about whether you are doing things right. Let words and actions come from your heart, and remember that this is the same person.

Practical suggestions for helping a friend with cancer

As with talking to someone with cancer, there are no set rules and every friendship is different. Be sure to think about your unique relationship and let that guide you regarding what you can do for them.  Just remember that helping a friend with cancer starts with you.  It could also be useful for you to learn about their diagnosis, as it is possible that your friend won’t want to talk about it and this can help with your approach.

Practical suggestions for how too help your friend with cancer.

Offering to help

People find it hard to ask for help. You may need to gently remind them that you do not expect them to return the favour and you do it because you care. While not being pushy, you can suggest specific tasks. Asking “how can I help?” can be broad and overwhelming for your friend and you are most likely to get an answer that they don’t need anything.

Practical things you can offer to do

There are several ways you can look at this

  • Think about the little things your friend enjoys and what makes life “normal” for them and offer to help make these activities easier.
  • Think about their regular chores that may now be difficult to do and help with those.
  • Think about how their life is now (appointment, new diets and so on) and offer to help organise those.

And if you commit to helping, it is important that you follow through on your promise. Click here for more ideas of practical ways you can help.

Understanding why your friends’ diet has changed

There are many stories in the media about certain foods or nutrients in the cancer diet that will stop cancer, cure cancer, cause cancer, feed cancer…..We are not discussing that here.  What we want to talk about is the nutrition-related side effects that are caused by cancer and its treatments, so that you have some insight into what someone is going through and this can help you help a friend.

How cancer symptoms can affect a healthy diet

Generally speaking, most people who have cancer are advised to eat a normal healthy diet. In some cases, a high-calorie diet is recommended to avoid weight loss and to keep energy levels up during treatment. But each person and each cancer is different so we can only generalise.

How treatment  affects the cancer diet

There are some foods and supplements that counteract cancer treatments, so, for example, some herbal remedies and foods that are otherwise safe can stop drugs working.  If your friend says they can’t eat grapefruit, for example, this could be because it directly interferes with their drug and her doctor would have told them.

Many of the diets issues that cancer patients have are in fact due to the side effects of the therapy they are having.  Side effects such as loss of appetite,  taste changes,  mouth problems, diarrhoea and/or constipation and there are many small diet and lifestyle changes that they can make to alleviate these symptoms/.  This is discussed more here.

Tips for choosing the right cancer gift

Cancer gifts can ease this stress and show that you care. But there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the right thing to give.  We suggest that you

Think about the person when giving a cancer gift

It is not a case of one size fits all.  A child having chemotherapy will have very different needs from an adult, for example.

Understand the treatment when giving a cancer gift

When people think of cancer many think of the devastating effects that therapy can bring (loss of appetite, sickness, hair loss and so on). But with advances in cancer research, science and medicine this is no longer always the case.  So for example, just because someone is having chemotherapy, it doesn’t mean their hair will fall out and you need to buy them a soft hat or scarf.

Cancer Care Parcel provide the opportunity to buy friends, colleagues and loved ones gifts they need.

• Our gifts are useful appropriate and thoughtful.
• We have an advisory board to suggest appropriate items.
• Everyone who receives a cancer care parcel is given access to our increasing number of resources, aimed at supporting all those affected by cancer.

Our Cancer Presents support a range of people, treatments and cancers including gifts for men, women, children and teens, people undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, hospital stays or no treatment.  Plus presents for after treatment and convalescence.  We also include gifts specifically for certain cancers for example breast cancer, prostate cancer, bone cancer and lung cancer.

If you have any comments or questions we are always happy to hear from you

Further reading

How To Behave When  Someone Has Cancer

Cancer Gifts To Show You Care

3 Practical things you can offer to help someone with cancer

From Me to You: Letter Writing To People With Cancer

Five Gifts Not To Buy A Cancer Patient: From Beanies To Spa Treatments

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