Supporting a Friend Who Has Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2022

If one of your friends has cancer, you may be wondering the best way to support them. Even though you want to help, it may be hard to know what to say or do.

It is important to remember that there are no set rules, and every friendship is different. Be sure to think about your unique dynamic and let that guide you as you try to support your friend. Keep it simple. Remember that it is often the little things that mean the most.

Continuing friendship and regular activities after a cancer diagnosis is a great way to help your friend through their healing process. Your friend will also need support and encouragement after cancer treatment has finished. After treatment, your friend will be trying to find their "new normal" in this next phase of life. Friendships are an important part of that. With these practical suggestions in mind, your friendship can make a lasting difference to a person with cancer.

How can I prepare to support a friend with cancer?

Before talking to a friend who has received a cancer diagnosis, consider taking these steps:

  • Process your own feelings beforehand. Learning that a friend has cancer can be difficult news to hear. You may feel a lot of emotions, such as grief, sadness, anger, despair, or fear. Take time to acknowledge and cope with your own emotions about the diagnosis before you see or talk to them. This way, you can keep the focus on your friend, and you will not unintentionally burden them with your emotions.

  • Learn what you can and accept what is shared. Your friend may not want to talk about the details of their diagnosis for many reasons. It can be physically and emotionally tiring to repeat the same information to many different people. If possible, a person's spouse or a mutual friend may be able to give you the basics. Write it down and repeat it back to them to be sure you have the correct information. If there is information that is unknown or not shared, do not push for more. Do a little research online at credible websites to learn more about the specific treatment, side effects, and recovery to have a better idea of what your friend will be going through.

  • Prepare yourself for changes to your friend's appearance. Fatigue, weight loss, and hair loss are common side effects of cancer and many cancer treatments. Start your visit by saying "It's good to see you" instead of commenting on any physical changes.

How can I support a friend with cancer?

Although each person with cancer is different, here are some general suggestions for showing support:

  • Ask permission. Before visiting, giving advice, and asking questions, ask if it is welcome. Be sure to make it clear that saying no is perfectly okay.

  • Make plans. Do not be afraid to make plans for the future. This gives your friend something to look forward to, especially important because cancer treatment can be long and tiring.

  • Be flexible. Make flexible plans that are easy to change in case your friend needs to cancel or reschedule. The effects of cancer can be unpredictable.

  • Laugh together. Be humorous and fun when appropriate and when needed. A light conversation, a funny story, or a silly video or meme can make a friend's day.

  • Allow for sadness. Do not ignore uncomfortable topics or feelings if they come up. You may not be able to fix it, but you can provide comfort by just being with them. This may be called "holding space."

  • Check in. Make time for a check-in phone call or text message. Your friend can respond to your outreach when they feel up to it.

  • Offer to help. Many people find it hard to ask for or accept help, but your friend will likely appreciate the offer. Offer specific things you can help with, such as childcare, pet care, a ride to an appointment, or preparing a meal. If your friend declines the offer, do not take it personally.

  • Follow through. If you commit to helping them, it is important that you follow through on your promise.

  • Treat them the same. Try not to let your friend's cancer get in the way of your friendship. As much as possible, treat them the same as you always have.

  • Talk about topics other than cancer. Ask about their interests, hobbies, and other topics not related to cancer. Come ready to talk to them about something unrelated to cancer. People going through treatment often need a break from talking about the disease.

  • Read their blog, web page, or group emails. Some people living with cancer choose a main avenue of communication to keep their support network updated. This can be writing a blog or social media page about their experience in detail that they can share with friends and family. Or a family member will post updates to a personal web page or send a group email or text. Stay current with these updates so that your friend does not have to repeat experiences or information multiple times. These updates are also a great way to start a conversation and show that you care what they are experiencing.

What to say to a friend who has cancer

Do not be afraid to talk with your friend. It is better to say "I don't know what to say" than to stop calling or visiting out of fear of not choosing the "right words."

Here are some things you can say to help show your care and support:

  • I'm sorry this has happened to you.

  • If you ever feel like talking, I am here to listen.

  • What are you thinking of doing, and how can I help?

  • I care about you.

  • I'm thinking about you.

Here are examples of phrases that are unhelpful or even harmful:

  • I know just how you feel.

  • I know just what you should do.

  • I'm sure you'll be fine.

  • I know you'll fight this.

  • Don't worry.

  • How long do you have?

Remember, you can communicate with your friend in many different ways, depending on how they prefer to communicate. If you do not see your friend regularly, think of trying a phone call, video call, text message, or email to show that you care. Your friend will reply when they feel up to it.

How can I help a friend with cancer with daily tasks?

Your help with daily tasks and chores is often valuable for a friend with cancer. Be creative with the help you offer. Remember that your friend's needs may change, so be flexible in shifting your plans as needed. Let them know that you are available if an unexpected need comes up.

If receiving practical help is difficult for your friend, you can gently remind them that you do not expect them to return the favor and you do it because you care. While not being pushy, try to suggest specific tasks. Asking "how can I help?" can be broad and overwhelming for your friend. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Shop for groceries and pick up prescriptions.

  • Help with chores around the house, such as cleaning or laundry.

  • Cook dinner and drop it off. Ask beforehand about dietary restrictions, as well as what tastes good to them since treatment can change taste buds and appetite.

  • Schedule a night of takeout food and movies together.

  • Watch children, take them to and from school activities, or arrange for play dates.

  • Organize a phone chain or support team to check on your friend regularly.

  • Drive your friend to and from appointments. Offer to take notes during an appointment or give them company during treatment.

  • Go for a walk together.

  • Think about the little things your friend enjoys and that make life "normal" for them. Offer to help make these activities easier.

  • Offer to make any difficult phone calls. Or, gather information about different resources they may need.

  • Support your friend if they decide to participate in a fundraiser.

How can I form a support network for a friend with cancer?

Organizing a support network is a great way to help a friend living with cancer. Some online communities offer tools to coordinate tasks (such as rides or meals) among friends and caregivers. Shareable online calendars can help you organize activities among your friends and family. You can also make a paper calendar and write in various activities and commitments by hand. Make sure your friend has access to the calendar so they know what to expect and when.

Gift ideas for a friend with cancer

When you are considering a gift for your friend with cancer, keep in mind their interests and hobbies. Also, think about your relationship. A close friend may be able to give something silly or unusual. But a neighbor or work colleague may want to stick with something more traditional. Keep gifts fun, interesting, serious, or light, depending on what your friend needs the most at that moment.

Some ideas include:

  • Magazines, audiobooks, novels and other books, or gift cards to purchase reading material

  • A music subscription

  • A television streaming subscription

  • Pictures of friends and family

  • Accessories such as earrings, bracelets, scarves, ties, or hats

  • Comfort items, like a warm blanket, pillow, pajamas, or robe

  • Crossword and Sudoku puzzles

  • Note cards or a journal

  • A video message from family and friends

  • Gift certificates for a massage, spa services, restaurants, or passes for museums or an art gallery

  • A housecleaning service

  • Gift cards to grocery stores or food delivery services

  • Portable hobby supply kits for scrapbooking, drawing, or needlepoint

Before sending fresh flowers, live plants, or balloons, be sure to consider your gift very carefully and avoid these items unless you're sure they are OK to get. Flowers and other plants can bring pollen and fungal spores, and they may be off-limits for someone during or after certain cancer treatments. And, some patients may feel like taking care of them is too much. Balloons may also be not allowed in some hospital settings due to allergen and other concerns. Other things that you should think twice about are any gifts that have a strong scent, to avoid triggering headaches, nausea, or skin reactions.

Remember, it is not necessary to buy a gift to support your friend during this stressful time. Reaching out, spending time with them, or showing you care in another way is its own gift.

Related Resources

Talking with Someone Who Has Cancer

What You Can Say to Someone With Cancer During and After Treatment

Caregiving Basics

Meal Trains: Providing Food Safely to People With Cancer

More Information

CancerCare: What Can I Say to a Newly Diagnosed Loved One with Cancer