Feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, and helplessness come with a cancer diagnosis. For the person who has been diagnosed with cancer, it is helpful when friends and family members provide a comforting presence and practical support.
It may be hard for someone to know what to say to someone who has cancer. Staying in touch is always better than staying away. But a lot of times, friends and family are not sure what to say or what not to say – which ends up leading to distance when the friend may need you the most.
Although this refers to cancer, these are helpful tips when dealing with any kind of life-altering disease.
Here are some things to consider before talking to a friend who has cancer:
· Process your own feelings beforehand. Learning that a friend has cancer can be difficult news to hear. Take time to acknowledge and cope with your own emotions about the diagnosis before you see him or her. This way, you can keep the focus on your friend.
· Learn about the diagnosis. Your friend may not want to talk about the details for many reasons. It can be physically and emotionally tiring to repeat the same information to different people. If possible, the person’s spouse or a mutual friend may be able to give you the basics. Write it down and repeat it back to them to be sure you have the correct information. If there is information that is unknown or not shared, do not push for more.
· Think about it from your friend’s perspective. Remember a time when you were scared or felt sick. Think about what it felt like. What did you want to talk about? How did you want to be treated? You may also want to prepare yourself for changes in your friend’s appearance. Fatigue, weight loss, and hair loss are common side effects of cancer treatments. Start your visit by saying “It’s good to see you” instead of commenting on any physical changes.
Helpful tips when supporting a friend
Although each person with cancer is different, here are some general suggestions for showing support:
· Ask permission. Before visiting, giving advice, and asking questions, ask if it is welcome. Be sure to make it clear that saying no is perfectly okay.
· Make plans. Do not be afraid to make plans for the future. This gives your friend something to look forward to, especially because cancer treatment can be long and tiring.
· Be flexible. Make flexible plans that are easy to change in case your friend needs to cancel or reschedule.
· Laugh together. Be humorous and fun when appropriate and when needed. A light conversation or a funny story can make a friend’s day.
· Allow for sadness. Do not ignore uncomfortable topics or feelings. If you and your friend are close, discuss the “elephant in the room”. Although a hard discussion, you may understand your friend’s current emotional status once everything is out in the open.
· Check in. 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. Do not take it personally if your friend does not want to talk. Could be for many reasons, i.e. they are tired, they just want to be alone to think, they are tired of talking about their disease, etc.
· Offer to help. Many people find it hard to ask for help. But your friend will likely appreciate the offer. You can offer to help with specific tasks, such as taking care of children, taking care of a pet, or preparing a meal. If your friend declines an offer, do not take it personally.
· Follow through. If you commit to help, it is important that you follow through on your promise.
· Treat them the same. Try not to let your friend’s condition get in the way of your friendship. Your friend has a disease – the disease does not have them. If your friend can do things independently, as long as they continue to be safe – support them maintaining that independence.
· Talk about topics other than cancer. Ask about interests, hobbies, and other topics not related to cancer. People going through treatment sometimes need a break from talking about the disease.
· Read his or her blog, web page, or group emails. Some people living with cancer choose to write a blog about their experience that they can share with friends and family. Stay current with these updates so that your friend does not have to repeat experiences or information multiple times. These updates are also a great way to start a conversation.
What to say
Do not be afraid to talk with your friend. It is better to say, “I don’t know what to say” than to stop calling or visiting out of fear.
Here are some things you can say to help show your care and support:
· I am sorry this has happened to you.
· If you ever feel like talking, I am here to listen
Continuing friendships and regular activities after a cancer diagnosis is a great way to further the healing process. Do not forget that friends also need encouragement and support after cancer treatment has finished. After treatment, your friend will be trying to find his or her “new normal” in this next phase of life. Friendships are an important part of that. With these practical suggestions in mind, your friendship can make a lasting difference to a person living with cancer.