Five ways that you can support a friend who’s just been diagnosed with cancer

Has a friend or relative just been diagnosed with cancer? Here are five ways you can support them.

Whether malignant or benign, the diagnosis of cancer can be alarming, scary, and devastating news to a person. Even if benign, simply the word ‘cancer’ will send a course of thoughts racing through their head. For many it’s life-altering to be confronted with our mortality.

In many ways, supporting a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer can be similar to grief support. Depending on the severity of their diagnosis, patients will experience the 5 stages of grief, but in different ways unique to cancer patients.

In this article we’re going to share some tips on supporting a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer, some which are similar to grief support, and others unique to cancer patients.

1) Understand that the diagnosis is just the beginning of their journey

The diagnosis is only the first step in what can be a very difficult journey ahead for the patient. Depending on the stage and type of cancer, it could be easy to remove like oral cavity cancer, whereas treatment for leukemia could take several years of chemotherapy.

No doubt a person will be shook up about the diagnosis itself, and they may fear the treatment to come. Depictions of cancer patients in the media are not pretty, but it’s useful to know that popular media depicts cancer all wrong. As many cancer survivors have vocalised their experience, not all patients suffer doom, gloom, and bedridden agony.

2) Give them an emotional safe space

Supporting a friend or relative during these moments means creating a safe space for them to express themselves at their choosing. It’s nice to express solitude and support for your friend, but you should not crowd their space with constant reminders of your support. You may offer to accompany them to cancer supportive care, for example, but leave the offer on the table gently without pursuing them for a response.

They may prefer to spend time sitting alone with their thoughts, and when they open up those thoughts and feelings, they may express it terms that sound like an internal monologue.

For many, trying to express these abstract thoughts in conversation will prove difficult, hence their reluctance to open up. Try to imagine explaining the concept of color to a blind person, and see how impossible it is. However, they may feel more inclined to open up if you have relatable experience with grief or trauma to share.

However, make sure that your relatable experience is of direct proportion. Do not share the death of your cat as experiencing their situation, it simply does not scale.

3) Treat them the same as you did before their diagnosis

Offering them excessive sympathy will feel like a pity-parade to them, and can actually serve to shame them, as they may feel like a pariah.

Certain cultures can compound this problem, for example perpetuating hypermasculine traits that encourage men to be stoic and indifferent to emotions. Or portrays women as being hyper-emotional and fragile. In both cases, the expression of emotion is dismissed, shamed, or even ridiculed.

Thus the person may already be self-conscious about how people are perceiving and judging their grieving process, feeling pressured to start a countdown clock to their emotional recovery before their grief becomes a burden on society.

4) Be mindful of well-intentioned banality

Simply put, say nothing that would make them feel awkward, such as “when do you think you’ll feel normal again?” or, “someday you’ll get over it”. The person is very much experiencing the present, and does not need banal, cliche suggestions to quicken their timeline to recovery.

If it sounds like supporting a friend through these moments requires a bit of patience and careful handling on your part, it does. Statements like “I’m always here for you” can be well-intentioned, though made insincerely if you can’t follow through. In that case, the person may rather you didn’t make such offers, as they may also be fearful of exhausting you.

5) Remember these five golden rules

To summarise, here are five golden rules to remember:

  • Offer only what you are capable and willing to give.
  • Never assume their feelings unless you’ve been there.
  • Do not give them a countdown clock to recovery.
  • Let them choose when to share their experience.
  • Observe and listen, avoid offering meaningless platitudes.