Supporting a Friend or Loved One with Cancer

Last Updated: July 24, 2020

It can be difficult to find the right words when a friend or loved one is diagnosed with cancer. In this video, Dr. Lidia Schapira and patient advocate Dusty Donaldson offer some guidance on ways to express your support.

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Supporting a Friend Who Has Cancer

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Cancer.Net: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

Supporting a Friend or Loved One with Cancer

Voiceover: A cancer diagnosis can cause a variety of emotions. Sadness, anger, confusion, and helplessness are all feelings that are common to experience after a cancer diagnosis and throughout cancer treatment. Many people going through cancer find it’s comforting to be able to talk to others about their feelings.

In supporting a friend or loved one going through cancer, it is important to stay in touch with them and let them know you care, and to take cues from them about what type of communication works best for them.

Dusty Donaldson, Patient Advocate and Lung Cancer Survivor; Member, American Society of Clinical Oncology: When someone gets a cancer diagnosis, there are a lot of immediate needs, of course, for treatment, for information, but they also need encouragement and and compassion from family and friends.

Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO; Medical Oncologist; Member, American Society of Clinical Oncology: They really appreciate expressions of love and support from loved ones, friends. I hear that all the time from patients, who tell me that they're moved and deeply grateful for those expressions of kindness and concern. I know some people may hold back for fear of appearing to be intruding during a very private moment, but I do know from what I've heard from patients over the years that they really feel grateful for expressions of kind concern, for empathic support from friends, relatives, even coworkers.

Voiceover: When talking to a friend or loved one with cancer, try not to overburden the person with details about your emotion as it relates to their cancer, and try to limit the number of questions you are asking. And stay away from stories comparing their cancer to someone else's. Sometimes, relationship dynamics may change after someone has been diagnosed with cancer.

Dusty Donaldson: When someone gets a cancer diagnosis, you see usually 1 of 2 things: people who have maybe been in your inner circle, you might see them step out of it, and then other people who were maybe on the periphery of your life, they will step in. And I just want to encourage more people to step in. When someone gets a cancer diagnosis, they really need to feel like they matter, that they care, and that they're supported by their family and friends.

A lot of times, people are uncomfortable because they don't know what to say and how to provide comfort to their friend, and so they don't say anything. But I think if you feel like that, instead of withdrawing from that relationship, just tell your friend, "I don't know what to say, but I do care, and I want you to know that I care, but I don't know what to say." Just express yourself, even that way, I think is helpful.

Dr. Lidia Schapira: A diagnosis of cancer leads to so many changes in the way a person thinks of their life, and sometimes they're surprised by completely unexpected or random acts of kindness from people they didn't even think knew them very well. But those are very meaningful experiences.

Dusty Donaldson: When I was diagnosed, I was working, and some of my folks--my colleagues at work--initially, they were sort of ignoring my cancer diagnosis, and I felt a little hurt, as if maybe they just didn't care. And then I later found out that they had sort of talked amongst themselves and said, "Dusty's being strong about this, so we're just going to be strong about this, and we won't even talk about."

And I was like, no, I want you guys to talk--I want to talk about it. And then they got together and they said, "We really would like to bring some meals to your house"--when I was going through surgery--"Do you mind if we do that?" and I'm like, that's awesome. And it was really great. And not only the meals, but they would come to visit and bring the meals, different people. One of my colleagues, she was super-organized, and she had this schedule.

Voiceover: It can be helpful for family and friends to use websites or apps to help update others on the person's condition, and to arrange any help the family may need. This enables the person going through treatment and their family to communicate to many people at the same time, so the communication doesn't become overwhelming.

Dr. Lidia Schapira: Some patients and families, for instance, create a webpage, where they alert others as to what's going on.  And this is important, for instance, in the case of a long illness, or a long hospitalization, such as for a bone marrow transplant. But there are so many different ways that patients and families and communities of friends can express support.

I know the case of a patient whose friends created a schedule, so one of them would accompany her to her chemotherapy appointments, and this was all programmed. There are so many different ways of showing support: bringing meals, calling, sending a card, phoning, offering to do some chores. Because at the end of the day, I think it's really important for a person undergoing cancer treatment to feel supported and connected to others. Creating a community is really important, and requires effort. So if friends and relatives can step up and help with that, I think it will provide an enormous comfort.

Dusty Donaldson: To find out more about how to talk to and support someone with cancer, visit Cancer.Net.

[Closing and Credits]

Cancer.Net: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

ASCO's patient education programs are supported by Conquer Cancer® The ASCO Foundation

The opinions expressed in the video do not necessarily reflect the views of ASCO or the Conquer Cancer Foundation.

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