How to Support Someone With Cancer (and What Not to Do)

by | Sep 15, 2018 | General Health | 2 comments

🕓 Reading time: 4 minutes

“All of a sudden, they started acting weird around me.”

GPs often hear this statement from cancer patients regarding the reaction from friends and family after being diagnosed. Breast cancer, prostate cancer, or lung cancer – it makes no difference; they all seem to elicit a similar response.

Some other comments heard from patients:

  • “I thought she’d be there for me. She couldn’t even look me in the eye!”
  • “Just like that, my social circle diminished to just a handful of people.”
  • “I know he’s just trying to help, but I wish he’d just listen instead of offering advice.”

The GPs at our clinic understand the myriad reactions caused by shock, sadness, and anger. It can seem like just yesterday you and your friend or relative were drinking pinot gris outside a café on a perfect spring afternoon in Paris.

Now, all you see when you look upon them is their frailty and the looming presence of death.

However, what’s needed is acceptance of the situation, deep empathy, and a good dose of normality.

By no means extensive, here are some tips on how to be a mate while supporting someone with cancer.

Tips for Supporting Someone With Cancer


Take them to their medical appointments on time and without fuss. Hang out with them while they undergo chemotherapy. Bring along a board game when you visit them in the hospital. Stay a while.

Let them know they can rely on you to be present through actions, not words. A thousand ‘hang in there, champ’ Facebook posts are meaningless compared to showing up and saying, “OK, what have we got on today?”

On the other hand, give them space if they need it. People with cancer can be very busy. Be understanding if your help isn’t required at times.


The ‘elephant in the room’ is hard to ignore, and cancer is a huge beast. Don’t be afraid to talk with your friend or relative about their diagnosis if they want to.

The key here is to listen more than talk. They’ll likely have countless thoughts swirling around their heads that require a good airing.

Then again, they may want to say nothing at all. Be the ears they need, or be comfortable just sitting in silence.

Don’t be scared to inject a bit of humour, particularly if you have a close relationship. After all, laughter is the best medicine.


Helping someone with cancer stick to a routine can do wonders for their spirit. Maintaining a sense of stability and normality can be comforting, especially when their life has been turned upside down.

Keep doing your regular activities together. Go camping during Easter. Continue jogging every Saturday if that’s your thing – exercise is encouraged for patients, even during chemo.

Of course, there will be times when life is far from normal. Be adaptable to these situations and get things back on track when the opportunity presents itself.


It’s nearly impossible to support a friend or relative with cancer by yourself. There can be so much to do, which combined with high emotions, can be all too much for one person.

With their permission, build a team of supporters to share duties. This may include close friends, family, colleagues and cancer support services.

If the patient is a friend, remember to get the blessing of their family before building a broader support network. You don’t want to step on anyone’s toes and create additional strain in an already stressful situation.


Hang in there for the long haul when supporting someone with cancer. Your adrenaline may run high following their diagnosis, but can you maintain the commitment?

In many cases, cancer gets more challenging over time. Seemingly endless appointments, repeated chemo sessions and no promise of results can make it hard to persist with constant support.

But imagine how hard it is for your friend or relative who has the disease.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a break when you need it. ‘Powering through’ rarely works and usually leads to burnout.

This is where a team of supporters is golden in maintaining the care for someone in need.

What Not to Do

Here’s a short list of things to avoid following someone’s cancer diagnosis. All in all, it just requires common sense and thinking before you speak.

  • Don’t avoid them because you don’t know what to say
    Trust me, no one does. Just admit that you don’t know where to start and take it from there. Your honesty and openness will likely get the ball rolling in the right direction.
  • Don’t visit them if you’re sick
    Their body’s immune system is at its all-time low during and after chemo. A simple cold can be disastrous!
  • Avoid comparisons
    Spouting things like, “My cousin had stage four breast cancer back in ‘86 and beat it through positive thinking, and now she climbs mountains and hunts grizzly bears” isn’t helpful.
  • Avoid offering medical advice
    Don’t go there unless you’re an oncologist or doctor experienced in cancer. Your friend or relative needs love, support and evidence-based medicine. If you’ve read online that sea sponges cure cancer, maybe keep it to yourself.
  • Refrain from any of the following statements
    • “At least you’ve still got your hair.”
    • “Ah, we could all get hit by a bus tomorrow.”
    • “Have you tried cutting out sugar/fat/salt?”
    • “You should have exercised more/stopped smoking/stressed less when I told you to.”
    • “Everything happens for a reason.”

If you’re in need, please make an appointment online or call us on (03) 8579 6838.


  1. Kerri

    So true! And for other conditions that friends of mine have suffered and pulled through – like stroke, heart problems, mental health issues. Just be yourself and be there for them.

    • Doctors of South Melbourne

      We couldn’t agree more Kerri. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      Kind regards,
      Doctors of South Melbourne


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