how to be supportive when someone has cancer

How to be Supportive When Someone Close to You Has Cancer


Knowing how to be supportive when someone close to you has cancer doesn’t just come naturally to most people. Here’s some ideas and resources that can make a big difference.

Offering Support to Someone With Cancer

It’s completely natural to want to distance yourself from someone when they are going through something difficult. This is the most common response. Cancer forces us the face some difficult facts about life. It makes us examine our own fears. It’s important to overcome this reluctance to be there for our friend or loved one when it matters most. Make the extra effort to let them know that you care and that you’ll be there for them.

Be present

Actions speak louder than words. Sometimes a hug or just holding the person’s hand is enough to let them know that you’re truly there for them. Even if it’s hard, make eye contact so that they know you’re really hearing what they have to say. Show them with your actions how you feel if it’s too hard to speak.

Something as simple as letting the person know that you’re there for them can help get them through the day. When a person has a community of people supporting them and helping with practical needs it can make all the difference in the world. The road to cancer recovery is long and dark, and nobody wants to travel it alone. You could ask what you can do to help, or you can look for a possible need and offer specific help. So many people won’t ask for help. They don’t want to be an inconvenience, but if you offer to do something specific it can help.

Here are some ideas for offering help in a specific way. I you say “Call me if you need anything” most people will not reach out for help.

  • Make a homemade meal or order a meal delivery.
  • Offer to help with child care.
  • Offer to give them a ride to treatment appointments.
  • Help run small errands like going to the store or mailing letters.
  • Offer to take their phone calls if they are tired and need to rest.
  • Help arrange visits for social interaction.
  • Coordinate sending cards, gift baskets, or flowers.
  • Invite them to out lunch
  • If the person agrees, plan a social gathering. Always check with them first before making party plans so see how they feel about it.

Practice Empathetic Listening

When you listen with empathy, you begin to imagine how they are feeling, what helps them cope, what hopeful thoughts they are holding on to. You begin to see how they’re really doing. Someone who is going through a major life stressor has a lot of emotions to process. They might just need to vent and have someone willing to listen. They might feel misunderstood, but if you can show that how they are feeling is valid it can be a comfort. By listening with empathy you can help them feel understood

What to Say to Someone Who Has Been Diagnosed With Cancer

Finding the right words when someone close to you has cancer can be difficult. You don’t want to be too optimistic and make it seem like how they’re feeling is not okay. You also don’t want to add to their stress and fear. It is a basic human need to be heard and understood. If nothing else, you can simply say that you don’t know what to say, but that you’re there for them. Statements such as “I am sorry that this is happening to you,” or “I am thinking of you” are helpful.

Avoid saying, “everything is going to be all right.” That is what we want to believe, but just saying doesn’t always provide the reassurance that your loved one needs. Sheryl Sandberg, who recently faced similar grief in her family, put it eloquently: “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.” (her full essay can be found here)

If you’re struggling to find the right words, here are some kind things to say to someone with cancer:

  • “I’m so proud of your strength.”
  • “This stinks.”
  • “Let me help you with…”
  • “If you would like to talk about it, I’m here.”
  • “You are not alone.”
  • “Any time you need to talk, I’ll listen.”
  • “What day works for a visit?”
  • “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
  • “This doesn’t define you.”

You can find out more about how to be supportive when someone close to has cancer from professional organizations as well. Many experts and also cancer survivors are more than happy to share simple things that can make a big difference to cancer patients. They are not time-consuming or expensive ideas. They are things that anyone can do. I hope you’ll find the inspiration to offer the kind of support that your loved one needs.