What to Do When Someone You Love Has Cancer


Someone you love just told you they have cancer.

How do you respond?
What do you say?

I’ve had many tell me they don’t know what to do in such situations. And they don’t want to say the “wrong” thing. For that reason, I’ve put together eight suggestions to help you respond to your loved one, the Person With Cancer (PWC).

1. Say Something. Just after my first diagnosis, I received an email from an out-of-state friend. Because he asked how I was doing, I wrote back and told him about the cancer. He never responded. It felt like a slap in the face.

Silence could send a clear, powerful (and unintended) message. It could give them the impression that their sickness is unimportant to you. Or that you are shunning them. It could feel like you are afraid of them, see them as tainted, contagious…or worse, already dead. The opposite of not knowing what to say shouldn’t be saying nothing! That hurts! And isn’t your loved one in enough pain already?

Tell them how what they mean to you, or how you are feeling. "I hate that you are going through this." You could just say “I’m so sorry.”  If you don’t know what to say, then that’s what you say. I will never forget when I told a dear friend who lives in the NYC area. In his typical, blunt fashion, he said “Well, that f@%&ing sucks!” I loved it. (Plus, it’s true!)

Ask them if they’re comfortable talking more about the disease. Don’t be afraid. They’ve chosen to share with you, so they probably won’t mind if you ask them questions.

2. It’s also okay to show emotion. This is tough news, so express your concern, your love, your compassion, even your sorrow and grief. Hug and touch them; they aren't contagious. Cry with them. (Weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth might be a bit much. You want to support them, not force them to comfort you.)

Just after my second diagnosis, we were at church talking with friends who were asking the usual questions of concern (“How are you doing?” and “What have you heard from the doctor?”) when a woman walked up. After listening for a while, she asked me what we were talking about and I explained that we’d recently learned of my cancer. She nodded, then turned to talk with others. No response. No emotion.

On the flip side, it’s best to keep negative, toxic emotions to yourself—fear, panic, anger, rage, dread, guilt, pity, etc. Please be assured that the PWC is already struggling with these same negative feelings, so they certainly don’t need you to feed, reinforce or confirm them.

3. Affirm what they are feeling. It’s unrealistic to think your loved one won’t have a full range of emotions, including some that wouldn’t make it into the song “These are a few of my favorite things…” If you ask “How are you feeling?” it's important they be allowed the freedom to express whatever they’re feeling at that moment—without judgment, without being corrected and without shock. Sometimes they may feel hopeful; other times, they may be afraid. I remember remarking to a friend about apprehension related to upcoming treatments, and that person scolded me, saying I was being pessimistic. “The doctors don’t know everything. You need to spend more time talking to God than your doctors.” (Guess who I won’t be talking to about my feelings in the future?)

4. Be appropriate. Cancer is cruel; our friends should not be. Jokes about losing hair or breasts or erections might not be welcomed. Your loved one may not always have the capacity to laugh at their disease, their treatments, their side effects. Use caution when employing humor to cheer them up. Take your cues from the PWC, not from that witty, brave patient on that made-for-TV movie.

Just prior to beginning my hormone suppression treatments, I was explaining to a friend the effects I could expect—similar to those of a woman going through menopause. A man standing near us (a friend of my friend) kept interrupting to make “female” jokes (e.g., asking if I would suddenly have the urge to buy stilettos, if I’d grow boobs, would I be needing make up, etc.). There was no way to communicate, so I just smiled and ended the conversation.

Another aspect of being appropriate has to do with your loved one's condition. For example, how you treat them when they first learn of the diagnosis and how you treat them during chemotherapy will differ. If they’re weak and sick from treatments, it wouldn’t be appropriate to invite them to lunch or to go bowling.

5. See Beyond the Disease. Having cancer can be a full-time job—doctor doctor visits, tests, treatments, symptoms, etc. Sometimes, they may want to forget it, and talk about anything else. Help take their minds off the disease; engage them in “normal” conversation and topics. It may seem trivial to talk about the book you're reading when your loved one is going through chemo, but that might be just what they want.

6. Offer to help. Depending on the situation and health, there are any number of tasks that might need to be done: run errands, shop for groceries, household chores, cook/deliver meals, babysit (or pet sit), yard work, bring magazines or books. (If they are very sick, offer to read to them). If you do volunteer to help, consider being specific. ("Can I bring you dinner on Tuesday night?") Another important task involves transportation, particularly to the many, many (MANY!) doctor or treatment visits. And of course, do what you promise. (i.e., Don’t agree to take the cat to the vet, and then not show up.)

7. Stay connected. When a person first learns of their diagnosis, friends and family will usually check on them regularly. But as time goes on, people get busy…and the calls/visits become less frequent. If the PWC had to leave their job or can’t participate in regular events, it’s easy for their circle of friends to dwindle. Don’t stop inviting them to social events and don’t stop checking on them.

8. Listen! I put this last, but it should also be first. And middle. During this time, your loved one can feel completely out of control; the disease and the doctors are running the show. Their medical team is telling them what to do, what to eat, where to go, etc. Unfortunately, there are often loved one who are quick to share what they would do in the same circumstances or giving their advice on any number of details...including medical guidance. Sometimes, the best way to show your support is to just listen to them.

No, it’s not easy responding to a loved one's cancer diagnosis. But this is not about you; your loved one has cancer. You may be uncomfortable, but they could be terrified. If they’ve chosen to share this with you, it’s a sign they value you. It’s a gift…of trust. How you react…and what you say…tells them what you think of the gift.

Can you think of others things to do that would be helpful?
I welcome your insights, suggestions and comments.

Of course, there's also some things we should NOT do.
We'll look at those in our next article.