5 Tips For Supporting a Friend Who Has Cancer

by Nancy Brook on July 14, 2015

3955225642_53915fa44e_zAs an Oncology Nurse Practitioner, cancer has become a normal part of Nancy’s daily life. Here are her tips to help support a friend who has cancer.

It’s hard to turn on the tv, open a magazine or look at your online news browser these days without reading about the latest celebrity to be diagnosed with cancer. Stories about cancer are everywhere; treatment protocols, surgical procedures and the latest experimental therapies. 

When someone receives an unexpected and scary diagnosis, they may want to talk about it.

As an Oncology Nurse Practitioner, cancer has become a surprisingly normal part of my daily life. Each week my team and I work hard to help diagnose and treat the men and women who find themselves nervously waiting in our office. For over 15 years, I have spent my Friday afternoons calling patients, anxiously waiting by their phones to give them the news–to let them know that yes, they have cancer. 

My heart goes out to each and every one of them because I know that at that moment, their lives will change forever by hearing those three simple words, “you have cancer.” So what happens when the person who is diagnosed is someone you love?  

What do you do when your friend is diagnosed with cancer? If you are wondering how can you be supportive and helpful in the midst of such uncertainty, here are five tips to help support them during a seriously challenging situation.


1. Show Up

One of the hardest things about dealing with a friend’s cancer diagnosis, is the fear that it brings up within ourselves. As bad as it sounds, it is sometimes easier to keep on with your daily life than to face the stress and uncertainty that goes along with having cancer. But the right thing to do is to show up.

Be present–and let them know their friendship matters to you regardless of their physical condition. Whether it is a daily phone call or text, (depending on what is typical for your relationship), keep on doing it. When you are scared, stressed, and especially if you are hospitalized, hearing from someone you love matters–a lot!

2. Listen

When someone receives an unexpected and scary diagnosis, they may want to talk about it, or not. Being told you have cancer can come as somewhat of a shock, and sometimes it takes a while to come to terms with the implications. Your friend may go through those familiar stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance–actually any or all of them, and in no particular order! 

Become an active listener. All that is required is your full attention, without interruption, offering solutions or thinking about what is next on your to-do list. Be careful about asking too many questions as well, as this can be tiring, and may create additional stress when your friend does not know the answers.

3. Be Helpful

There is no good time to be sick, especially if you have a family, a job or assorted other responsibilities. Offering to help with daily chores can make things easier during a difficult time. Preparing a meal for the family, offering to pick up children from school or running a couple of errands may be appreciated more than you can imagine. 

If you are part of a community, setting up a Google doc, or using a site like Lotsa Helping Hands can create a calendar for organizing meals and other help for friends in need. 

4. Don’t Judge

Believe it or not we all have strong opinions about medical care and the many choices and decisions that come up when faced with a cancer diagnosis. Your friend may express opinions you don’t agree with about his or her treatment, doctors or even how to share the news. Be respectful of their choices. While you may be surprised by some of their preferences, when it comes to life and death, we all deserve to be treated respectfully. 

5. Take Care of Yourself

Being an advocate for someone with cancer can take a toll, even with the best of intentions. Make sure that you are eating well, getting enough sleep, and staying involved in activities you enjoy even though you may be short on time.  

It’s important to create time for your family as well. And, if you find yourself struggling to deal with the situation, consider joining a local cancer support group in your neighborhood or online. The better you feel physically and emotionally, the better you will be able to help your friend on this cancer journey.


Despite the advances in medical care and dedicated research, nearly one in five people will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. 

As strong as we like to think we are, there are times when having extra support is a good thing.

According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Treatment & Survivorship Facts & Figures 2014-2015, there will be an estimated 1,658,370 new cancer cases diagnosed and 589,430 cancer deaths in the US alone. Chances are, you will know someone who has been affected by cancer.

While these tips might sound basic, I can assure you that when and if you find yourself in this situation–all bets are off. Cancer is scary, plain and simple, and no two cases are alike. If you believe you would benefit from professional assistance, reach out and get it. 

As strong as we like to think we are, there are times when having extra support is a good thing, and thankfully support groups, oncology nurses, and counselors are experienced in this area. Following the tips above may not heal the pain and stress of a friend’s cancer diagnosis, but it is a good place to start.

American Cancer Society  800/227-2345

CancerCare 800/813-HOPE

Photo: Flickr/ Jeremy Brooks

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

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