01/31/2013 05:16 EST | Updated 04/03/2013 05:12 EDT

How You Can Help a Friend With Cancer

What do you do when you find out that a friend has cancer? This is the type of news that can make you feel awkward in the relationship. Here are some suggestions from what I've learned with two encounters with my own cancers.


What do you do when you find out that a friend has cancer? This is the type of news that can make you feel awkward in the relationship. Some people just don't know what to do because they have been fortunate enough to not have encountered situations like this before. It may be highly uncomfortable for others because it is a reflection of their own mortality. Some others just take this in stride and know intuitively what to say and do. Under any circumstances, this is a life changing event for your friend and by your association for you too. So what can you do and what should you not do?

Here are some suggestions from what I've learned with two encounters with my own cancers. Remember everyone and every relationship is different, so use these as guidelines, not gospel. Also these pointers apply to the many other traumatic events that can occur in life.


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Do Something

Doing nothing is not an option, especially if the friend has made contact personally to inform you of the cancer. Sometimes people don't know what to do in these circumstances so they wait to do just the right thing which often means they do nothing. This is almost always wrong and can send a message to your friend that you don't care. You do but just don't know how to express it. If you don't know what to do, ask your friend, then you will have done something.

Today with all the different forms of communication, there is no excuse for not making some kind of contact through email, phone, cards, a visit. Email is a wonderful tool. I have friends that send emails to my wife and I that contain jokes, "news from the north" messages, supportive comments, invitations etc. Just something that shows you care. Unless your friend sanctions it, stay away from communicating about the cancer on social media. They may not want the world to know and putting it out there on Facebook or Twitter is a neon billboard.

Let Your Friend Lead This Dance

No matter what your relationship has been up to this point, this is now about your friend and you giving the type and depth of support that he or she needs at a particular moment. Depending on your friend and your relationship, they may need a lot or very little and the levels of support can vary during the cancer experience. It is about what your friend needs, not about you and what you think should be done. Be prepared for changes in how the dance evolves. During my first cancer, radiation treatments were very debilitating and impaired my ability to talk so being involved with others was just too strenuous and physically painful. This cancer is more serious, but the treatments are not as severe so being with others is quite enjoyable. This can look like a mixed message to friends but just shows how each situation is different, even for the same person.

Cancer Does Not Define Your Friend

You now have a friend with cancer, but cancer does not necessarily have your friend. I always got the feeling that when friends and relatives saw me for the first time after the diagnosis was announced that they thought I should look different or worse. Cancer is a new facet of your friend, perhaps the most important one for now, but not the only one. Unless your friend wants it, try not to make cancer the primary aspect of your relationship. If you do, you will be putting the disease between you and the friend.

Stay Away From Saying Certain Things

Unless you have a personal experience with cancer, stay away from saying things like: "I know how you feel" and "I understand what you are going through." If you have not been there, you probably don't know. Years ago we went to a parenting course. Another member of the group asked the facilitator if she had children. She did not and no one showed up for the next meeting. You cannot know parenting from a book and you cannot know cancer if you have not been down that road.

Unless you are absolutely sure the friend needs this type of approach, avoid telling them what they should and must do. Suggestions are most helpful but the friend is getting enough direction and management from the people who are treating the cancer, they don't need more. Generally, don't be pushy.

"How long have you got to live?" and statements to that effect are never crowd-pleasers. Some people don't have verbal police and say what ever comes into their heads. Statements like that are a good way to hear a pin drop in a crowded room and create distance between you and your friend.