Helping a Friend with Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology Social Work

NOVEMBER 26, 2018

What can you do when a friend has cancer?

It is painful and difficult when a friend has cancer. Whether you live nearby or at a distance, you may feel that you don’t know how best to help or even, sometimes, what to say. You want to support and love your friend, but you may not know how, and your friend may seem aloof, easily irritated and generally not herself.

When a friend has cancer, the usual rules and responsibilities of a close relationship change. This is not a 50/50 or even a 70/30 connection. Instead, for the duration of your friend’s treatment, you need to carry at least 90% of the friendship. This means that your needs come a distant second, and you must always remember that the details and problems in your life likely seem unimportant to someone who is struggling through chemotherapy. Just to make it even harder, there will be times when your friend wants only to hear about your job or relationships and is desperate to have a normal conversation. This is to say: Sometimes you just can’t win. Be ready to be flexible and listen carefully to your friend's cues. There will be times when she wants only to speak about cancer, and other times when she does not want to hear the word.

Here are some specific suggestions:

  1. Do not ask for details about her pathology report or staging. Wait for her to bring it up.
  2. Do not ask about the prognosis or, after treatment, how the doctors know if the chemotherapy and/or radiation worked. (They don’t; only the safe passage of time will answer this question.)
  3. Do not remind her that anyone could be hit by a bus. This is neither reassuring nor helpful.
  4. Do not tell her about others who “sailed through” chemotherapy or, alternately, suffered each day of the treatment. Respect her individual experience.
  5. Send cards, emails and call often. The message is that you are thinking about her, and that she does not have to return the call.
  6. If you are nearby, call when you are heading out to do errands. Ask if you can pick something up or mail a package.
  7. Offer to drop off a meal or do a carpool run or care for her children. Lotsa Helping Hands is an online private way to organize useful help among friends and community groups.
  8. Do not leave it at: “Call me if you need something.” Instead, offer to do something specific. And then offer again later.
  9. If you can afford it, occasionally send a small care package. This can be bubble bath or a couple of cotton scarves or trashy novels or another small treat.
  10.  If you live far away, ask if she would like a visit or if, later, she might like to come visit you. Don’t assume that you know the best time to get together or when she most needs company and support.

Most importantly, stay close. All cancer patients find that some so-called friends abandon them. Cancer can last a long time, and others move on. Good friends are with us for the duration, listen closely and only need to say: “I’m here.”

If you have been through cancer, what did you friends do that especially helped you? And, if you are a friend to someone going through cancer, what have you done? Tell us your story in the BIDMC Cancer Community.