In part 1 of “Practical Grace–How to Not Be a Friend to Someone With Cancer,” I shared what I observed at a recent cancer treatment appointment with regard to people’s typical reactions to a friend with cancer and how those responses correlated to the responses of Job’s friends toward him when he experienced major tragedy. In part 2, of “Practical Grace—What Not to Say to Someone with Cancer,” I shared what isn’t helpful when a friend or loved one receives a cancer diagnosis. In this post, we’ll consider what IS helpful with tips on how to be a friend to someone with cancer.
Scripture tells us that “they will know us by our love.” When a loved one goes through a trial, we have an opportunity to show them the love of Christ by being a present help and support.
When a friend, family member, or loved one receives a diagnosis of cancer, it can be uncomfortable and often people fear saying or doing the wrong thing. While the temptation might exist to say or do nothing until down the road when they report they are either better or worse, that would be the worst thing you could do. From personal experience, people notice your absence much more than they become hurt or offended if you say or do something that misses the mark.
18 Tips for Supporting a Friend with Cancer
- Treat your friend just as you did prior to their diagnosis. A person with a cancer diagnosis wants to feel like a person rather than a diagnosis. They may have received an unpleasant diagnosis, but the core of who they are hasn’t changed. If you wouldn’t treat someone differently after receiving a diagnosis of heart disease or diabetes, then don’t let a cancer diagnosis change how you treat them. The support of friends will aid in their healing and recovery before, during, and after treatment.
- Rather than focusing so much of your attention on what to say, let them guide the conversation while you focus on being a good listener. Don’t avoid discussing their diagnosis and treatment, but don’t focus solely on the cancer—a healthy dose of conversation on non-cancer related topics is often a welcome respite.
- People want to know that you care about them before they care about what you know. Keep advice to a minimum unless you are specifically asked for an opinion.
- Ask permission. Ask before coming over, before offering advice, before asking questions. This is their experience and you are there to support, not wear them down or wear them out.
- Recognize that everyone’s experience with cancer is different. Even two people with the identical diagnosis may have different treatment regimes, different side effects, and different outcomes. Avoid comparing your loved one’s experience with anyone else’s.
- Cancer can cause a huge disruption in an individual’s daily routines, physical comfort, emotional well-being, and their approach to life going forward. Frequently after someone experiences the onslaught of such a weighty trial, they need time to process what it means and the implications for themselves and their family. Be a safe, judgment-free place for them to openly and honestly share. Hold their hand, offer a hug, and just be present.
- Respect their boundaries. While many often desire to process their diagnosis and treatment plan verbally with safe family members and friends, others prefer not to share intimate details. If you desire to truly support them, respect their decision without pressure or guilt. Let them know it’s okay if they don’t want to talk, and respect their silence without taking it personally.
- Think about how you would like to be supported during a difficult trial, and try to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. While it can be difficult to understand what the experience is like if you’ve never had to go through it, keeping your loved one and their needs and preferences in the forefront of your mind will help communicate your love and support.
- Check with your loved one to see if it is convenient before stopping by for a visit. Additionally, consider rotating visits from friends or family members to avoid tiring out your loved one from too many visitors at once. Keep visits short, understanding that fatigue is often an issue for people undergoing treatment for cancer.
- Refrain from visiting when you have had any symptoms of colds, viruses, or infection. Your loved one will likely have lowered immunity, which puts them at risk for illness or infection. Even if you have been completely healthy, wash your hands upon entry into their home to avoid transferring germs.
- When physical distance makes visits impossible, consider video or skype chatting to maintain contact and a greater feeling of connectedness. When distance makes it impractical for you to fix and deliver a home-cooked meal, call local restaurants with a delivery option.
- Be flexible. Understand that how your loved one feels can not only vary from day to day but even from hour to hour. Allow them the flexibility of canceling or rescheduling plans at the last minute if necessary.
- Be dependable. If you offer or say you are going to do something, whether it be “I’ll call you in a couple of days,” or delivering the meal you said you’d bring, make sure you do it.
- If your loved one updates friends and family through a blog, email newsletter, caring bridge post, or some other formal mechanism, try to stay current on their updates so that they don’t have to waste physical or emotional energy repeatedly answering the same questions they’ve already communicated.
- While many feel uncomfortable talking with their friend or family member who has been diagnosed, there are many practical ways to support them. Rather than saying, “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” take the initiative to just do something. After a cancer diagnosis, there are more medical tests, doctor and treatment appointments, and pharmacy visits than you might ever imagine possible. Here are some very practical errands you could do for your friend or loved one:
a. Offer to drop off prescriptions or pick up medication at the pharmacy.
b. Let them know when you are going to the grocery store or dry cleaner and offer to pick up anything they need.
c. Offer to take or pick up their children to/from school, extracurricular, or church activities.
d. Drop off a meal in containers they don’t need to return.
e. Pick up their sheets, towels, or other laundry, take home to wash, and return neatly folded.
f. Offer to go with them and drive them to appointments.
g. Schedule a “night out” doing something “normal” and non-cancer related they would enjoy, even if it is just popping popcorn and watching a movie together on their couch.
h. Bring all the supplies then surprise them with an in-home manicure, pedicure, or facial to help them feel refreshed.
- Maintain frequent contact via phone, email, text, social media, and even consider good old fashioned snail mail greeting cards to cheer their day and let them know you are thinking of them. Don’t under-estimate the power of written communication—sometimes talking is just too effortful, but a handwritten note can cheer the spirit without draining their energy.
- Recognize that sometimes a cancer diagnosis and all it involves is just as hard, and at times even harder, on the caregiver than the identified patient. Acknowledge that with the affected caregivers. Offer to help them. Offer to come over to provide them with a period of respite.
- Consider bringing a “care and comfort gift basket.” Include items like a soft, warm lap blanket to take to treatment sessions, warm and cozy socks, candied ginger or ginger crystals to help with nausea, peaceful instrumental music, lozenges to help with dry mouth, encouraging devotional, herbal teas to help with nausea and sleep, unscented lotions for dry skin, magazines, note cards or journal, beautiful scarves or cute hats, balloons, gift cards for grocery stores, and gift cards for restaurants that offer take-out for those nights when cooking is out of the question.
It’s during the most challenging trials of life that we come to realize who we can trust and rely on. Look at this as an opportunity to offer the same love, comfort, and support that you would desire if the situation was reversed. Keep in mind that from diagnosis until final treatment is really more of a marathon than a sprint—this is an opportunity for you to show your loved one you are with them for the long haul, long after others have returned to their normal lives.
Prayer: How to be a friend to someone with cancer
May I pray for you?
Father, your word says that others will know us by our love. Help us to speak and act out of the overflow of love from our heart that you have shown to us. Help us to be the hands and feet of Jesus during those times when love and support can make the most impact. Guide our words and our actions so that we support and not stress those we love who are already suffering. Help us to comfort them with the same comfort you have shown us before. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Do you have any other tips for being a friend to someone with cancer? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
Because of Him, #HopePrevails!