How To Support A Friend With Cancer, By Someone Who's Been There

Cancer is hard. Here’s how you can make it a little easier for your loved ones.

senior mother and her adult daughter are embracing and looking at each other in the face

(Photo: iStock)

In 2019, when I was 24 years old, I became the first of my friends to be diagnosed with cancer.

I say ‘first,’ because the unfortunate truth is that nearly 50 percent of Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. A quarter of Canadians will die from the disease—but only a fraction of new diagnoses are among adolescents and young adults. Approximately 8,000 Canadians aged 15 to 39 are diagnosed with cancer annually, while the Canadian Cancer Society estimates that there will be 225,800 new diagnoses in 2020.

Despite how common cancer is, it’s still a shock when someone you love is diagnosed for the first time. And like with most traumatic life events, there is no roadmap to guide you on supporting your loved ones through such a tough time.

Everyone handles their diagnosis differently and has different needs. Here’s what I wish my support system knew before I was diagnosed.

Don’t assume one cancer experience is like another

When I was first diagnosed, my mom came with me to each appointment. She is a 23-year breast cancer survivor and was treated at the same hospital that I was. On paper, our cancers were the exact same: found in the right breast, triple negative (an aggressive subtype of breast cancer), and fast-growing. But during my first appointment with my medical oncologist, one thing was made explicitly clear: this is my cancer, no one else’s. Not even my mom’s.

When faced with something as unfamiliar and intimidating as cancer, turning to familiar experiences, like the stories of family members or acquaintances, can become reflex. But those comparisons help no one. A chemotherapy protocol that works magic for one person may prove to do nothing for another. Some people are able to work straight through treatment—or have no choice but to keep working—while others have side effects that make them feel like they were hit by a truck.

It might seem reassuring to talk about positive cancer stories—the friends and family members who have survived and thrived—but when you’re in the thick of it, you know all too well that their experience is not your own. Those stories might not be as comforting as you think.

Asking for help is hard, accepting offers is easier

When friends and family learned of my diagnosis, I was told, “Let me know what I can do!” over and over again. And I truly believe that their desire to support me was coming from a place of love and care. But the fact is, articulating what you need—especially for young adults who have spent the last few years of their life embracing independence—is challenging.

Instead, think of specific actions that could help your loved one. In a COVID-free world, offers of rides to and from appointments went a long way. After surgery, a friend dropped off enough food to last me for a week so that I didn’t have to worry about cooking for myself when even getting out of bed to get a glass of water was more than I could handle. I was also gifted UberEats gift cards, which allowed me to continue feeling independent by choosing my own food while taking advantage of contactless delivery. Even offering to pick up laundry to be washed and folded or dropping off groceries can be a lifesaver when the little things are way too much.

Let them choose what to celebrate

Just as you may not know what to do, it’s understandable that you may also not know what to say. Here’s a list of things that people told me that were absolutely, one hundred per cent, not helpful:

“But that’s a good type of cancer.”
“You’ll beat it and be back to normal in no time.”
“You’re so brave. I could never do what you’re doing.”
“At least you get a free boob job/don’t have to worry about getting pregnant/look good bald.”

It’s tempting to look for the silver linings. But these types of comments are dismissive of the struggles one might be facing.

Instead, follow their lead. Commiserate with their struggles, use their language, validate their feelings and celebrate their milestones. Let them decide which parts of their experience are the hardest and which are the ones worth commemorating.

Don’t underestimate the power of a simple “that really sucks.

Just because treatment is finished, doesn’t mean their cancer journey is over

Survivorship is challenging and confusing. In what felt like a blink of an eye, I went from weekly blood tests and treatments to a “See you in six weeks!” It feels like you’re pushed into the deep end without knowing how to swim.

But the side effects don’t end alongside active treatment. About a quarter of cancer patients experience a decreased quality of life post-treatment due to physical issues, reports the American Cancer Society.

No, the nausea no longer has me sleeping next to a trash can. Yes, I have enough energy to walk up a couple flights of stairs. But if I forget to take my medication in the morning, it won’t be long before I’m back in bed, dizzy and nauseous. If I scroll on my phone while lying in bed, I’ll slowly lose sensation in my fingers until I stop to stretch them out—a result of the chemo-induced neuropathy. Whenever I workout, I need to wear a compression sleeve to prevent my arm from swelling on the side where I had three suspicious lymph nodes removed.

And while rates of cancer patients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder vary, it’s something to be mindful of—especially in women. According to the renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute , “patients who are younger, female, less-educated, and who have had previous trauma or a preexisting mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, might be at higher risk for PTSD.” They suggest that preventing PTSD by “attending support groups or meeting with a mental health provider” is key. While not every patient might be open to the idea of seeking help, be there for your friend if and when they are. If they express interest, offer to help them find resources or groups that will meet their needs.

Though I am out of active treatment, I’m still processing all of the events from the past year. What’s helped has been having the space to speak freely about what I have experienced, and continue to experience, as a cancer survivor on my own terms. My friends continue to check in on me, reaching out to say hi with no expectations of anything in return, even after my hair started to grow back. For that, I am so grateful.

Trust me, cancer patients are as eager to get back to feeling like themselves as you are. But it’ll take time, so be patient. Walk a little slower. Be understanding of cancelled plans. And seriously, don’t touch their hair.

Published October 2020; updated October 2021

Get Chatelaine in your inbox!

Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered a couple of times a week.