How to *Actually* Support a Friend With Cancer, According to Survivors

Photo: Getty Images / Kikovic
A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with a pretty aggressive form of cancer. When I first heard about it through a mutual friend, I'm ashamed to say it took me days to work up the courage to call her. I just didn't know what to say.

She's since begun treatment, and I continue to feel not only tongue-tied but also useless. I find myself calling her a "warrior" or otherwise relying on trite phrases I've seen used in movies and on TV. What do you do when someone you care about is suffering from something that you can't help them fix? What do you say when there's the terrifying possibility that everything isn't going to be all right?

To find out, I asked not only those who have dealt with cancer themselves but also the founder of Humanly, a digital community for all those touched by the disease in its various forms. Below, find their advice on how to provide encouragement and support for a loved one who has cancer.

1. Remember, they're still act normal

Cancer diagnoses can be extremely de-humanizing. "You lose your identity overnight," says Lauren Wood, founder of Humanly and head of patient experience of Immunomedics. This was the case for breast cancer survivor Kristin Polanco. "I remember people being afraid to hug me," she recalls, which was of course frustrating and isolating.

That's why it's so important to be there for your friend to help them maintain a sense of normalcy, says thyroid cancer survivor Vanessa Steil. "The best thing is to just be yourself," she says. "Whatever relationship you have with this person, keep that relationship as what it is—don't change it just because they have just been diagnosed with cancer."

Polanco whole-heartedly agrees. "I think it’s important for everyone just to treat a cancer patient normally," she says. "I wanted to distract my mind from cancer, so I was focused on having a normal life as much as I possibly could." My newly-diagnosed friend recently asked me to continue sharing my mostly inane problems with her for this very reason—it takes her mind off cancer, and provides her with a sense of normalcy.

Of course, you should read the room and make sure you're blabbering on about your latest fling only when it's appropriate to do so. "I felt like there were days where I was more open to talking or didn't want to talk," says Steil. "I think as a friend and a loved one you should just respect the person's boundaries and read social cues and see what feels right."

2. Let them talk about the scary stuff if they bring it up

If you're a Sex and the City fan, you may remember the scene in which recently-diagnosed Samantha asks Carrie to let her talk about "what she's afraid of," aka the worst case scenario outcome of her illness. This is a not-uncommon sentiment, says Wood. She tells me of a Humanly ambassador named Caroline, who expresses sentiments on Humanly similar to Samantha's. One of her posts reads: "I remember, the sister-in-law of a friend... did not push back at all when I was talking about or thinking about death. She really listened and was there with me. That moment was a moment where I was so incredibly grateful."

You'll want to let your friend lead the charge here, though. "I think it's a very individual thing, how that's going to be received," says Steil. "Some people really do benefit from talking about their diagnosis because it can be cathartic for them to feel that they're connecting with family and friends about what they're going through, while I think for other people they you know might be struggling like I did to process their diagnosis."

Wood advises that as with any friendship, it's just important to exercise good listening skills, avoiding the urge to interrupt any negative thoughts expressed with positivity. "Make sure you create space for them to feel heard," she advises. "Communicate that you understand where they're coming from while also providing your point of view."

3. Avoid these unhelpful cliches

To this end, Wood says that telling a patient it's all going to be fine—whatever their prognosis—can seem dismissive. "Everyone would just say 'you will be okay', and that was something I was just tired of hearing," says Polanco. It's also a no-no, according to Steil, to tell someone they have the "good kind" of cancer. (Which, what does that even mean?) "That marginalized my diagnosis," she tells me. "At the end of the day, I still had a cancer diagnosis that required surgery and treatment." She also says she wasn't fond of being told everything would go back to normal after her treatment. "That was frustrating, because it's a new normal you're dealing with," she explains.

Wood also says that some cancer patients aren't into comparing their cancer diagnosis and treatment to a war or a battle. "People talk about cancer in terms of fighting and 'we're gonna win this,' and that's a big trigger for a lot of individuals," she says, because that implies that if a person's treatment doesn't work or they die (outcomes typically out of a person's control) that they've "lost" or are losers. "For the majority of people we have worked with, this battling language does not sit well with them."

4. Imagine their FOMO, and try to mitigate it when possible

Everything about cancer is hard, but can you imagine scrolling through Instagram while sitting in for chemotherapy treatments? My friend began her first course over the fourth of July holiday, and if I was feeling FOMO from a lack of exciting plans, I can't even fathom what she was feeling.

To counteract these sick-day blues, Wood says it's common for friends and family to rally around treatments to make them less overwhelming and scary. "[On Humanly], I read about this woman whose friends decided that they didn't want every treatment to be doom and and dwelling, so they created a concept called 'chemo themo,' where they had a calendar of her upcoming treatments, and they had one friend or family member sign up for each one, and they had a theme for each time she went to the infusion center," Wood tells me. She says this type of fun can be even more important for younger individuals who have been diagnosed with cancer because they're often surrounded by people in treatment who are older and in a different place in life. "Any increment in a positive direction is helpful for everyone involved," she says.

5. Be a buddy

Often, the instinct can be to 'not bother' people when they're dealing with something important, but Polanco says you shouldn't underestimate the value of your presence. "I think for me spending time with the people I loved was the biggest gift," she tells me. "I just wanted to have the people I loved beside me."

Steil tells me she had a friend who would go with her to every appointment, and that it meant everything to her. While you may not be able to offer yourself up as a 24/7 buddy, you can ask your friend if there are appointments he or she's planning to do alone and then see if it makes sense for your schedule to join. Or set up a regular catch-up, as did that same friend of Steil's. "[She] took me to lunch each week and it was a gesture that I looked forward to because it helped me take my mind off my cancer diagnosis and gave me a sliver of normalcy just to put makeup on and get dressed," she says.

6. Help out with the research

Because cancer can be so complicated, information around it can be overwhelming. My newly-diagnosed friend happens to work in medicine and thoroughly enjoy research, so she's got an amazing handle on her options; however, some people may need help navigating info overload. "I remember one of my closest friends spoke to his brother-in-law who was an endocrinologist about my diagnosis, and his brother-in-law was the one who recommended that I go with the surgeon who would preventatively remove the lymph nodes around my thyroid," says Steil. "That wise advice prevented me from undergoing a second surgery down the line because one of lymph nodes that was removed shows signs of cancer had spread."

Obviously, not everyone has a doctor in the family who they can tap. But doing things like helping a person look up reputable doctors on ZocDoc or sending them interesting articles you've found on a new treatment can be a helpful and meaningful gesture. Steil says that friends looked up online support communities for her to join, like Humanly and The Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association, which proved to be great resources. "It's not to marginalize the people that were there for me because I certainly had an amazing support group, but at the end of the day it's nice to know that there is an online community where you can be very open and honest and it's going to be understood."

7. Give money and gifts

The trauma of cancer is often compounded by the financial stress it incurs. "I had no insurance so I was in a pretty big pickle," says Polanco, who was 22 when she was diagnosed. She said that while her parents found a way to put her back on their insurance, not everything was covered. "I was so grateful when my old university started a GoFund Me to help with my medical bills," she says.

While not everyone will be comfortable with big public donations, you can always gift money quietly. One sneaky way to do this, I've found, is just to send it over on Venmo, unannounced and accompanied by a gift emoji.

Material things can be nice, too—even small, seemingly-frivolous gifts. One of the first things I gifted my friend with was at-home masks and soaks. When she complained to me about the medical marijuana she started using, I also gave her a cannabis vape pen, which she loves. (Note: I live in California, where it's legal.) Blankets, cozy socks, cute (and warm, because hospitals are always cold) lounge clothes, and reading material are all also good ideas, particularly for those going through extended treatments or surgeries.

You may also want to consider something sentimental which they can use as a totem of sorts throughout treatment. For example, another friend of mine who was recently diagnosed has nicknamed her tumor "Bob." So, one of her friends gifted her with a necklace that reads "F*ck Bob," which she's wearing throughout treatment.

8. Offer services

If you don't have money to spend, worry not as some gifts are priceless. For my ex-boyfriend who had stage four cancer, it was housecleaning done by friends and family he appreciated the most since he rarely had the strength to do it himself. Cooking can also be helpful, as can doing laundry. If you're the organized type, you may also want to offer to help them keep track of bills or handle even more complicated insurance paperwork. When it comes to this kind of thing, don't wait to be asked, as not everyone is good at reaching out for help. Instead, take initiative and just do. 

9. This should go without saying, but don't ghost

"A lot of people I knew began avoiding me and just completely cut ties with me after I was diagnosed," says Polanco. "I think that hurt more than any responses I’ve received." Cancer is scary, and the fight-or-flight instinct can easily kick in if you're not diligent in seeking support for yourself, too. Wood tells me Humanly can serve this purpose, as can other friends-and-family support groups (both digital and IRL). Personally, I've found therapy very helpful to this end as well, and I would also say that self-care is critically important, too. After all, as the old adage goes, "Two sinking people can't swim." If you're going to help your friend stay afloat, you'll need to make sure you're in shape to do so or you'll both get dragged under.

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