supporting a friend with cancer

5 tips for supporting a friend with cancer (and what not to do) – Dr Judith Kirwood

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

This is a statement I often hear from cancer patients about their friends’ reaction post-diagnosis. Breast cancer, prostate cancer or lung cancer – it makes no difference; they all seem to elicit a similar response.

Some other comments I’ve 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.”

And I get it. Having practised as a GP for the best part of three decades, I completely understand the myriad of reactions caused by shock, sadness and anger. It can seem like just yesterday you and your friend were drinking pinot gris outside a café on a perfect spring afternoon in Paris. Now, all you see when you look upon your friend is their frailty the looming presence of death.

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

By no means extensive, here are some tips on how you can be a mate while supporting a friend with cancer.

Tips for supporting a friend with cancer

1. Be there. Show up.

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 hospital. Stay a while.

Through actions not words, let them know they can rely on you to be present. A thousand ‘hang in there champ’ Facebook posts are meaningless compared to showing up and saying, “OK, what’ve 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.

2. Don’t avoid the subject

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

The key here is to do more listening than talking. Your friend will likely have countless thoughts swirling around their head that require a good airing. Then again, the 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.

3. Just be normal

Helping a friend 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 where life is far from normal. Be adaptable to when this happens. Get things back on track when the opportunity presents.

4. Rally the troops

It’s near impossible to support a friend 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 your friend’s permission, build a team of supporters to share duties. This can include anyone from other close friends and colleagues through to cancer support services.

Remember to get the blessing of your friend’s 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.

5. Cancer is a marathon, not a sprint

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

In many cases, cancer gets harder over time. Seemingly endless appointments, repeated chemo sessions and no promise of results can make it hard to persist with constant support. But just imagine how hard it is for your friend with the disease.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a break when you need it. ‘Powering through’ rarely works and usually leads to burn out. This is where a team of supporters is golden in maintaining the care for a friend in dire need.

What not to do

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

  • Don’t avoid your friend 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
    Unless you’re an oncologist or doctor experienced in cancer, don’t go there.Your friend needs love, support and evidence-based medicine. If you’ve read online that Venus flytraps 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.”

Dr Judith Kirwood is a senior GP at Doctors of South Melbourne. She has extensive experience treating patients with many different types of cancer.