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Helpful Tips on Being Supportive to a Friend or Loved One with Cancer

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Helpful Tips on Being Supportive to a Friend or Loved One with Cancer

The information below is meant to be helpful for the friends, family and caretakers of an individual diagnosed with cancer. The tips provided below were garnered from professional and personal experiences.

This article is divided into the following sections:

  • Keys to Preparing Yourself

  • Tips on Individual Ways to Support a Friend or Loved One with Cancer

  • Thoughtful Gestures or Gifts

  • Suggestions for Communication with Your Friend or Loved One

  • Support through Online Communities

  • Supportive Comments You Can Say that Show Kindness and Support

  • What Not to Say

  • Conversations with your Spouse or Partner

  • Post Treatment Support

Before a “you initiate conversation” with a person diagnosed with cancer, it is vital that you first think ahead to prepare yourself.

Keys to Preparing Yourself:

Before you begin a conversation, please take time to process what you have been informed and consider these hints: Remember, it is about your friend, not about how you feel. Prepare to be disappointed if your friend cancels a date or fails to call you or return calls. They simply may not have the energy or may feel sick.

Coping with your own emotions first: Many people think about how they would feel with a new diagnosis of cancer. It is vital that you take the necessary time to cope with your own emotions about this new diagnosis, before you can be helpful to a friend. In addition, try not to focus on your own feelings of loss and sadness, since your friend should not feel like they need to care for you.

Your friend or loved one’s emotional perspective: Most individuals are overwhelmed with mixed emotions about the idea of having cancer.The idea of what the immediate future will look like is powerful. When a person needs to make formidable decisions about financial responsibilities, the legal ramifications of property and belongings, conversations with partners, spouses, children, and other significant relatives, it is staggering. Changes in physical appearance with possible symptoms of hair loss, fatigue, along with decisions regarding treatment options only make this time in a person’s life more stressful.

Learn some basic information about the diagnosis: It is hard to know ahead of time how much information your friend will be comfortable sharing with you. It is incumbent on you to have at least a basic idea of what they are dealing with to enable you to understand not only what your friend may share with you, but how you can be most helpful.

Be careful, since there is an enormous amount of information available on the web. Unfortunately, not all of it is accurate. Beware of claimed miracle cures.

A few reputable websites for specific cancer info, pain control and additional information:




Tips on Individual Ways to Support a Friend or Loved One with Cancer

Do not wait for someone to ask you for help or offer to do “anything they need” without first providing an example. Being a good friend doesn’t mean you need to assist with all or many of these suggestions. After speaking with your friend, try to find out which gesture may be the most helpful. Offer some practical ideas by asking if you can do any of the following:

  • Pick up prescriptions or shop for groceries.

  • Offer to bring a cooked meal or a variety of fruit or vegetables over to their home. Always check for any dietary restrictions, since these have become commonplace.

  • If you can, offer assistance with errands. If they have a child, you could offer to drive them to a school sport, an extracurricular class, pick up from school or offer pet care.

  • Most individuals enjoy activities they can look forward to. Invite your friend to go out to lunch or dinner.You could also ask whether they would like anyone else invited to join.

  • Make a resource list, based on their needs.It could be organizations with support groups, grocery stores that make home deliveries or home care agencies if that type of help is needed.

  • Plan activities your friend enjoys. It may be going to a movie theater or renting a DVD to watch with them at their house.

  • Offering to go for a walk together outside can be wonderful both physically and emotionally.

  • If your friend or loved one can travel in a car, plan a day trip to one of their favorite destinations. If the person is homebound, plan an indoor picnic, a tea or anything that makes your friend feel comfortable and supported.

  • Be enthusiastic about spending time together

  • Offer a ride to a physician appointment or a treatment visit (i.e., radiation, chemotherapy).

  • Be understanding if your friend changes their mind on the day you made plans. It is about how they feel and impossible to predict until that day arrives.

  • Allow for both humor, as well as sadness. Many folks want to hear stories that will make them laugh. There may be times when sadness and grief are shared with a particular friend. Just being present is supportive during these times.

  • Be supportive of treatment decisions, even if you might handle the same situation differently.

  • If your friend starts to continually lose confidence in their ability to handle all the work facing them with a cancer diagnosis, you could remind them of a time in their past when they faced a traumatic or stressful event and how well they were able to handle that problem. That will not work for everyone, but I have seen where it is very useful in cases when there are these types of past personal experiences.

  • Not everyone wants multiple visitors. Ask permission to call, e-mail or text each week to check to see how your friend is doing and follow through.

Offer to organize your friend’s medical care information in an outlined format. You could divide the information into sections. One example would be to take a large three ring binder divided into sections and write in the information listed below into each divided section:

  • Initial Diagnosis and Work-up

  • Pathology report

  • Second or Third Opinions

  • Information on treatments for their particular type of cancer

  • X-rays and Scan results (to include Pet scans, CT scans, MRIs…)

  • Immunology Treatments

  • Medical Oncologist, Radiation Oncologist; Radiation

  • Chemotherapy drugs

  • Nutrition during cancer treatment

  • Progress Notes (a written copy of one’s medical visits).

  • Symptom Sheet

This organized approach will help your friend feel that they do not need to remember everything that has occurred and will be extremely helpful during future medical visits.In my professional experience, this type of notebook has been invaluable.

Thoughtful Gestures or Gifts

  • Beautiful flowers like an orchid, since the blooms last well over a month or an easy to care for plant

  • Their favorite type of book/s (novel, mystery, poetry, audio book, non-fiction)

  • Thoughtfully wrapped candy or cookies.

  • DVDs of TV shows, movies or a documentary

  • Gift certificate for a spa service

  • Pictures of friends and family in a nice frame

  • An attractive pair of pajamas

  • A gift card to purchase an Echo. This could be very helpful if someone lives alone or is very weak.

  • Accessories such as earrings, scarves, or very nice personal care items

  • Crossword or Sudoku puzzles

  • Nicely designed note cards

  • Gift certificates for a spa service, restaurants, or passes for museums or an art gallery

  • Portable hobby supply kits like scrapbooking or an activity they enjoy.

  • Offer to drive your friend to one of their favorite places and if energy permits go for a walk outside or just drive by some beautiful scenery.

  • Remember the types of activities and interests your friend has shown and think of something that would bring a smile to their face! You could get a few friends to purchase some of the more expensive items.

Suggestions for Communication with Your Friend or Loved One:

  • Do not be afraid to talk with your friend, even if you do not have any specific advice to share.

  • When speaking with your friend you can express how much you care about them.

  • You could offer to make phone calls your friend might find difficult to initiate on their own. For example, assisting a friend by calling a medical center to find out what drug studies are offered for their specific type of cancer, along with the details of the protocol for getting accepted can be an enormous benefit. If your friend wants to be part of the process, having the phone “on speaker” can make them feel like part of the process and may provide confidence building by giving them the opportunity to ask questions and to see how the process works.

  • Don’t overwhelm your friend with multiple questions.

  • Ask the person with cancer if they would like to talk about their experience. It is best to allow him or her to decide if and when to talk and how much to share.

  • Make time for a check-in phone call. Let your friend know when you will be calling. Also, let your friend know that it is okay not to answer the phone.

  • Before visiting, giving advice, and asking questions, you need to ask permission to make sure it is welcome. Be sure to make it clear that saying no is perfectly okay.

  • Be an active listener and comfortable with silences. Your presence may be more important than any words.

  • Remember, you can communicate with someone in many different ways. If you do not see your friend regularly, ask if their preference is a phone call, text or email. Don’t be offended if they need a break from any type of communication for a period of time.

  • Discuss other topics besides their cancer. Your discussions could include your friend’s interests and pastimes before their diagnosis or topics that raise their enthusiasm.

  • If your friend has requested or given you permission to communicate with specific individuals about their medical updates and physical changes, you may want to offer to gather and organize all of their phone numbers and emails so these important individuals in your friend’s life can communicate and keep each other updated.

  • Be respectful of your friend’s treatment choices.

Support through Online Communities

Joining an online community is one way for individuals with cancer to connect with others. You could share this information with a friend to see if it would be a good fit.

This type of online support has several options to choose from in getting the help one might need. There are several advantages to joining this type of group:

  1. An individual can decide for themselves how much information they are interested in sharing with others.

  2. One can connect with other people experiencing similar diagnoses and symptoms.

  3. This method of communication makes it easier and less time consuming to stay in touch with family, friends and possible new buddies one can meet through these communities.

  4. Sharing experiences and challenges without having to meet someone face to face.

  5. By listening and reading information online, one may learn about new treatment options and ways to treat side effects that he or she may not have been previously told.

  6. Many individuals are at a loss as to how to communicate and how to be helpful with a friend or loved one who has cancer.

There are numerous online options for online support communities.I have listed a few below.

Caring Village: ( Caring Village is an easy to use dashboard that makes communications with family, friends and care professionals easier and faster. One can choose to utilize a centralized calendar, a wellness journal, a medication list and a customized care plan, just to name a few of the many choices. This can ease the task of repeating information and experiences to friends and family multiple times.

Group Loop: ( Group Loop provides online support specifically for teenagers with cancer and their families.

The National Cancer Support Community: ( The National Cancer Support Community has 45 affiliates throughout the United States and Canada.A person can call them to get information on numerous types of research and support for different types of cancer.

Support In Your Community: Check for a Healing Strong support group in your community at Their Mission Statement: Our mission is to connect, support, and educate individuals facing cancer and other diseases with holistic, evidence-based, non-toxic therapies through empowering community groups.

Supportive Comments You Can Say that Show Kindness and Support

  • “If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen.”

  • “How can I help?”

  • “I care about you.”

  • “I’m thinking about you.”

  • Using words like “I am here for you” or “you are not alone”.

  • “I’m sorry this has happened to you.”

Due to stages of grief, fatigue and multiple other factors known and unknown, not everyone will react the same way to each comment. It is important to not take it personally, if your friend has an untoward reaction to what you think is a supportive statement.

Many comments made to individuals with cancer are not appropriate, supportive or helpful.Below are a few examples:

What Not to Say:

  • “How much time do you have?”

  • “I understand how you feel.”

  • “You will be fine.”

  • Do not speak to common neighbors about your friend’s health status.

Conversations with your spouse or partner

Suggestions for a spouse or partner who has cancer

  • First, let your partner know exactly how you are feeling both physically and emotionally.Since cancer can have a severe impact on your emotional
    health, be specific regarding your fears, anxieties, as well as any feelings of depression and/or sense of being overwhelmed with what lies ahead.Let your partner know any physical pain or discomfort you are experiencing.

  • Provide your partner with specific examples of what you need to feel supported and cared for at this time.Also let them know that this may change as time goes on and how important it is to check in with each other every week or whatever time frame works the best.

Suggestions for the person supporting their spouse or partner with cancer

  • Plan ahead. Schedule a quiet place and convenient times when neither of you are not rushed.That may require hiring or asking someone to babysit
    or care for pets.

  • Be an active listener focusing entirely on what is said to you rather than your immediate response or next question.

  • Never raise your voice or give criticism.

  • Since there will be multiple topics to discuss and explore, focus on just one topic at a time. It could be beneficial for you to take notes if your partner agrees ahead of time. That could help slow you down and provide some extra time for both of you to gather your thoughts.

    • An outline is helpful for many people.

    • It could be organized with the activities that need to get done.One example may look like the following:A few sections divided into initial
      diagnosis and tests completed, second or third opinions, further testing and treatment options.

  • Slow yourself down, allowing your partner to speak without interrupting.

  • Be open to discussing how each of you are feeling, understanding that you may each be at a different stage of the grieving process and/or handling
    the stress associated with this new diagnosis very differently.

  • Think of ways, you could be supportive to your partner.For example, accompanying them to a physician appointment/s and taking notes, reviewing
    treatment options together.

  • Rehearsing in your head or out loud what you might say can be of value.Writing some notes on paper ahead of time, could also be very helpful.

  • Hiring a Private Health Advocate to be present with both of you or your partner could be valuable as well.

Cannabis for Symptomatic Relief

If appropriate, you may also want to suggest that your friend try using cannabis for pain or nausea. Older baby boomers may have used marijuana in the past and believe it is illegal or immoral. You may want to encourage or help your friend research information.

A few good websites are:

The American Cancer Society’s website, includes information on marijuana and cancer. The web site discusses how different compounds may affect pain, anxiety, nausea and inflammation in the body.

One can also get information from NIH-The National Cancer Institute at, as well as the Mayo Clinic at

Post Treatment Support

Your support and bond with your friend or loved one will be needed at the post treatment period.This period of time will be different for each person and may be ongoing.

Since treatments and medications may decrease one’s ability to continue their daily routine, it is important for you to encourage your friend to stay involved in their usual activities before the diagnosis or symptoms occurred. Your presence and rapport will be your special gift to your friend or loved one.

If you or someone you love is struggling with Cancer, reach out to Campbell County Health for more resources. Contact below.

You can find the Heptner Cancer Center at:

Location: Campbell County Memorial Hospital, 501 S. Burma Ave, Gillette, Wyoming 82716

Medical Oncology/Infusion phone: 307-688-1900

Radiation Oncology phone: 307-688-1950

Medical Oncology Fax: 307-688-1920

Radiation Oncology Fax: 307-688-1974

Hours of Operation: Radiation Oncology, Monday-Friday, 8 am-4:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday, closed; Medical Oncology, Monday-Friday 8 am-5 pm; Saturday and Sunday 8-10 am

Director: Leigh Johnson, MS, RTT, CMD, 307-688-1962,

Author: Linda Garvin of


  • Category: Cancer Treatment