When you find out that a friend or loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, it’s hard to know how best to provide help and support. People who have cancer have different treatment plans, different types of cancer, and differing responses to treatment. That means that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to supporting a friend or loved one with cancer.
You may have just learned that you have cancer. Or you may be in treatment, finishing treatment, or have a friend or family member with cancer. Having cancer changes your life and the lives of those around you. The symptoms and side effects of the disease and its treatment may cause certain physical changes, but they can also affect the way you feel and how you live.
Research shows, though, that the more help and support a person with cancer has during their diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, the more well-adjusted they feel. So, your friendship really matters.
What Might I Feel After My Diagnosis?
We all know that cancer affects your physical health, but it can also bring up a wide range of feelings you’re not used to dealing with. A cancer diagnosis can also make existing feelings seem more intense. They may change daily, hourly, or even minute to minute. This is true whether you’re currently in treatment, done with treatment, or a friend or family member. These feelings are all normal.
Often the values you grew up with affect how you think about and cope with cancer. For example some people:
- Feel they have to be strong and protect their friends and families
- Seek support and turn to loved ones or other cancer survivors
- Ask for help from counselors or other professionals
- Turn to their faith to help them cope
Whatever you decide, it’s important to do what’s right for you and not to compare yourself with others. Your friends and family members may share some of the same feelings. If you feel comfortable, share this information with them.
It’s very normal to ask, “Why me?” and be angry at the cancer diagnosis. You may also feel anger or resentment towards your health care providers, your healthy friends and your loved ones. And if you’re religious, you may even feel angry with God.
Anger often stems first from feelings that are hard to show, such as:
If you feel angry, you don’t have to pretend that everything is okay. It’s not healthy to keep it inside you. Talk with your family and friends about your anger. Or, ask your doctor to refer you to a counselor. And know that anger can be helpful in that it may motivate you to take action.
When you were first diagnosed, you may have had trouble believing or accepting the fact that you have cancer. This is called denial. It can be helpful because it can give you time to adjust to your diagnosis. It can also give you time to feel hopeful and better about the future.
Sometimes, denial is a serious problem as it make keep you from getting the treatment you need.
The good news is that most people work through denial. Usually by the time treatment begins, most people accept the fact that they have cancer and move forward. This is true for those with cancer as well as the people they love and care about.
- Feelings of sadness that don’t go away
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Feeling nervous or shaky
- Having a sense of guilt or feeling unworthy
- Feeling helpless or hopeless, as if life has no meaning
- Feeling short-tempered, moody
- Having a hard time concentrating, feeling scatterbrained
- Crying for long periods of time or many times each day
- Focusing on worries and problems
- No interest in the hobbies and activities you used to enjoy
- Finding it hard to enjoy everyday things, such as food or being with family and friends
- Thinking about hurting yourself
- Thoughts about killing yourself
- Unintended weight gain or loss not due to illness or treatment
- Sleep problems, such as not being able to sleep, having nightmares, or sleeping too much
- Racing heart, dry mouth, increased perspiration, upset stomach, diarrhea
- Changes in energy level
- Fatigue that doesn’t go away
- Headaches, other aches and pains
You don’t and can’t fix depression on your own. Depression is a very normal part of any life-changing diagnosis. If you’ve been feeling blue for longer than 2 weeks, call your doctor and tell him or her about it. They can help.
Fear and Worry
It’s scary to hear that you have cancer. You may be afraid or worried about any number of things, including:
- Dying before loved ones
- Feeling that your life is unfinished
- Feeling sick and ill before and after treatments
- Looking different than you once did
- Providing for and taking care of your loved ones
- Cost of treatment
- Taking care of your family
- Keeping your job
Some cancer fears are based on stories, rumors, or mis-information. To cope with fears and worries, learn as much as you can about your cancer, treatments, support, and all the medications you may take Be an active part of your care team and treatment plan. Ask questions no matter how dumb you feel. It’s been shown through a few studies that people who are more well-informed about their cancer and its reatment are more likely to follow their treatment plans and recover more quickly than those who are not.
With acceptance of cancer, many people feel a sense of hope, and for good reason! Millions of people walking around, living life every day have survived cancer. Every single day, your chances of living with and recovering from cancer are better than they’ve ever been. Plenty of people with cancer can lead still active lives, even during treatment.
Some doctors suggest that hope actually makes treatment go by a bit easier. Here’s how to keep some hope alive, no matter how scared you are:
- Keep planning your life like you’ve always done
- Unless you need to rest, don’t let cancer dictate how you live your life
- Write down things that make you hopeful – a favorite holiday, flowers blooming
- Spend time in nature. Nature is incredibly healing to be in, especially when you’ve got a lot on your mind
- Reflect on your religious or spiritual beliefs.
- Don’t dwell on the stories of those who have succumbed to cancer; focus on talking to those who have survived and thrived.
- Sometimes, friends and loved ones have a really hard time dealing with your cancer diagnosis and may avoid calling and visiting you.
- You may be too sick to engage in the hobbies and activities you used to enjoy.
- Sometimes, no matter how supportive your loved ones are, you may feel that no one understands what you’re going through.
It’s also normal to feel alone after treatment. You may miss the support you got from your health care team. Many people have a sense that their safety net has been pulled away, and they get less attention. It’s common to still feel cut off from loved ones. Some think that as treatment is over, you’ll be back to normal soon, even though this may not be true. Others may want to help but don’t know how.
Look for emotional support in different ways. It could help you to talk to other people who have cancer or to join a support group. Or, you may feel better talking only to a close friend or family member, or counselor, or a member of your faith or spiritual community. Do what feels right for you.
When you first learn that you have cancer, you may feel as things have gone completely out of control
- You wonder if you’re going to live
- Your life now revolves around doctor appointments, treatments, tests
- You feel like you can’t do the things you enjoy.
- You feel helpless and lonely.
Even if you feel out of control, there are ways you can take charge. It may help to learn as much as you can about your cancer. The more you know, the more in control you’ll feel. Ask your doctor questions and don’t be afraid to say when you don’t understand.
These feelings will pass.
For some people, it feels better to stay busy. If you have the energy, try taking part in activities such as music, crafts, reading, or learning something new.
Sadness and Depression
Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety are completely normal after diagnosis, during treatments, and after treatments. This doesn’t make you any less of a fighter. Anxiety means you have extra worry, can’t relax, and feel tense. You may notice that:
- Increased heartrate
- Headaches and muscle pains.
- You may eat more, you may have no appetite
- You feel sick to your stomach or have diarrhea.
- You feel shaky, weak, or dizzy.
- Tightness in the chest and throat
- You sleep too much or too little.
- You find it hard to concentrate.
If you have any of these feelings, talk to your doctor. Though they are common signs of stress, you will want to make sure they aren’t due to medicines or treatment.
Stress can keep your body from healing as well as it should.
If you’re worried about your stress, ask your doctor to suggest a counselor for you to talk to. You could also take a class that teaches ways to deal with stress. The key is to find ways to control your stress and not to let it control you.
Some people see their cancer as a “wake-up call,” and it helps them realize how important it is to relish every second we have. They take trips. Finish projects. Spend more time with friends and family. They mend broken relationships.
Maybe you don’t feel that way, but make an attempt to find any joy you can in your life. Watch the birds. Work in the garden. Explore new things. Enjoy all the parts of life we normally take for granted. Write out your feelings. Talk to your loved ones.
You can also do things that are more special to you, like being in nature or praying in a place that has meaning for you. Or, it could be playing a sport you love or cooking a good meal. Whatever you choose, embrace the things that bring you joy when you can.
Coping With Your Emotions:
It sounds wild, but the more you express to others the strong feelings like anger, loneliness, and guilt, the more you can let go of them. Sort them out with a loved one, a support group, or a counselor. Remember that your loved ones may not have the answers, and that’s okay.If talking makes you uncomfortable, write them down. Do anything you can to get it out of your system.
All You Need Is Positivity
Sometimes this means looking for the good even in a bad time or trying to be hopeful instead of thinking the worst. Try to use your energy to focus on wellness and what you can do now to stay as healthy as possible.
Don’t Blame Yourself for Your Cancer
It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. If needed, go ahead and say it into the mirror until you believe it.
Some people think that they got cancer due to something inside their control. However natural it feels to blame yourself, remember this: even cancer researchers don’t know why one person gets cancer and another does not.
Cancer can happen to anyone.
Don’t Try to Be Upbeat If You’re Not
There’s no use for you to putting on a brave face. Most people see right through it, and as hard as we try to make others feel comfortable, just be honest. Give into those feelings and let them out.
You don’t have to be sunshine all the time.
Only Talk About Cancer If YOU Feel Like It:
Well-meaning people may want to talk at great length about your cancer, compare it to their loved ones, and offer you different “cures” and advice. They don’t know any better. It can be hard for people to know how to talk to you about your cancer. Other people mean well, but they don’t know what to say or how to act. You can make them feel more at ease by asking them what they think or how they feel or simply tell them that you’re not into talking about cancer right now.
Whatever activity helps you unwind, you should do it. Meditation, guided imagery, relaxation exercises, taking a bath, and taking a nice walk are just a few ways that have been shown to help others; these may help you relax when you feel worried.
Get Out There:
Sometimes, getting out of your environment at home can give you some life. Try anything – take a drive, go grab a cup of coffee, visit a friend, are all things you can do to help you from feelings of crawling the walls.
What Do You Enjoy?
Most people do have activities they once – and/or still – enjoy. Why not try to do some? Getting creative, writing your story, these are all ways you can feel productive, even when you’re not feeling well.
You Can’t Control It All
Like addicts and others with chronic illnesses, you can’t control it all. Period. However, putting your life in order may really help you feel as though you’ve achieved something. Work on being involved with your care, keep appointments, and make changes in your life to make you healthier. Sometimes, people find that making – and keeping – a daily schedule keeps them sane. Of course, you can’t control all of your feelings and thoughts, but try not to dwell on the bad ones – and enjoy the positives where you can.
How To Cope If You’ve Been Diagnosed With Cancer:
When you learn you have cancer, you may feel like your life has been turned upside down. Once the shock wears off, the process of making changes begins. You may have to rearrange things in your life as you start treatment. The symptoms and side effects may take a toll on both your body and your emotions. You may have to learn new ways of talking to your loved ones and to your health care team. And you probably have a lot of questions to ask about adjusting to all the new issues that cancer brings.
Learning that you have cancer is frightening – you may feel anxious, depressed, terrified, and overwhelmed. Here are some tips for coping with a cancer diagnosis.
Get the facts about your diagnosis – ask your doctor specific questions and write down the answers. If it’s overwhelming, have a friend or family member do so.
Maintain your normal lifestyle – but be open to changing things around if necessary.
Maintain lines of communication between your doctor, your friends, and your loved ones. A cancer diagnosis is particularly isolating, and this is the time to let people in and let them help. They want to help.
Look into your goals and priorities and find time to do those that are most important to you.
Try to anticipate any physical changes. After a diagnosis is the time to learn more about the physical changes that may occur with cancer and cancer treatment. Ask your doctor about any changes you should anticipate. Pick up some wigs, makeup, and any other items that may make the transition easier on you.
Stay healthy – eat a healthy diet, exercise as best as you can, and get enough rest; this can help combat some of the stress of treatment.
Let people help you. Now is not the time to be proud and put up a strong front – let people in. They want to help. Encourage that. Come up with specific items or areas where you need assistance and ask your friends and loved ones to help with these things.
Talk to others who have been diagnosed with cancer. If you have cancer, sometimes it feels like no one else understands you. Those who have cancer do. Seek out support groups on the Internet or find a local support group.
Figure out how to cope. Your coping mechanisms may not be the same as others, but there will be things that you can do to cope with your diagnosis and illness.
Check into insurance options (if you’re in the US). You may feel trapped at a particular job for fear that you will be denied new insurance. Find out any assistance your state may offer, check into the FMLA Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act – and if you qualify.
How To Help A Friend With Cancer:
Many people going through cancer treatments – or treatments for other chronic illnesses – find asking for help challenging. Instead of waiting to be asked, offer your friend specific ways you can help. It’s up to him or her to decline your offers.
If you have no idea what to help with, ask your friend or their family.
Register to be a bone marrow donor. Even if it’s not something that can help your friend specifically, you are giving the gift of life.
Try not to let your friend’s condition get in the way of your relationship. Treat them just as you always have.
Make sure to provide your friend space, but offer visits whenever they would like.
If you are able to, make space for their uncomfortable feelings. Let them talk about how scared they are (without jumping in to reassure them), or how mad they are (without jumping in to cheer them up), or how frustrating, invasive, unfair this is (without trying to redirect them into “positive” thoughts).
Be supportive if they need more than you can give and if they turn to therapy, a support group, a pastor, etc.
Make sure any plans that are made are easily changeable – just in case something pops up.
Make sure that you can make some plans for the future too – this gives your friend something to look forward to.
Do your best to follow through with any commitments you make. If you promise to pick up groceries or watch their children, do it.
Allow your friend to be sad. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but these feelings are expected and allowed. Make sure your friend knows that you can hear the hard stuff, too.
Check in once a week via phone or email. Let your friend know he or she doesn’t have to answer the phone if he or she does not want to. Sometimes that level of contact is simply too much.
Be sure to write, too. Some days, when the treatments are too exhausting, your friend may not want to talk on the phone. Instead, postcards, emails, even text messages will be read and reread, lovingly, by your sick friend.
Rotate your visits to the hospital. Your friend needs to rest just as much as he or she needs to see you, so make sure to visit in shifts so as not to overwhelm your friend.
Talk to your friend about non-cancer related topics. Sometimes your friend needs a break from talking about cancer.
Make sure to include the family of the person with cancer – often, they are so overwhelmed by care-giving responsibilities that they do not take proper time and care of themselves.
What Are Some Practical Ways To Help A Friend With Cancer?
Practical help is often very valuable for a friend with cancer. Your friend’s needs will change often due to treatment time-frames, symptoms, side effects, energy, and ability to concentrate. Be creative and flexible in the practical help you offer. These are some suggestions for practical help:
- Help with house chores – take out the garbage, help out with pets, clean up, help with laundry, bring in the mail, do any gardening.
- Make dinner or bring some takeout and watch movies.
- Help babysit children, offer to chauffeur them around town and arrange for play-dates.
- Put together a phone chain or support team to check in with the friend frequently.
- Offer to drive your friend to a support group – and join! Friends and family are always welcome.
- Offer to go with and take notes at a doctor’s appointment.
- Keep your friend company during a treatment session.
- Coordinate transportation to treatments. Work with your friend, their family, and their other friends to take turns driving your friend to and from treatments.
- Offer to help sorting through medical bills and insurance claims. Those piles of paperwork can be massive.
- Offer specific help – “can I bring over dinner tonight?” rather than “let me know if you need me.”
What Do I Say To Someone With Cancer?
Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to say to a friend with cancer. You’re afraid of stepping on land mines, toes, or making your friend feel worse. Here are some things you can say:
“I’m really sorry this happened to you.”
“I’m here if you want to talk.”
“I care very much about you.”
“How can I help?”
What Are Some Gift Ideas for a Friend With Cancer?
It’s a nice idea to pick up some gifts for a friend with cancer – huge mood-brightener. But…what to buy?
Gift cards for a Kindle/iPad or other eReader.
Gift cards for music for an mp3 player.
Makeup, jewelry and other beauty items.
Crossword or other books of puzzles.
Money for a housecleaning service.
Gift certificates to a spa, for a massage, restaurants, passes to local museums.
Pajamas or a robe.
How NOT To Help a Friend With Cancer:
The worst thing you can do is nothing at all. Every cancer survivor knows at least one person, who, upon hearing the news, disappeared forever. Your friend will never forget if you’re the one who does that.
Don’t say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” It implies that God had a role in the development of cancer and may make your friend feel as though he or she is being punished.
Avoid comparisons. Just because your best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s girlfriend had cancer, followed THIS diet, and was cured doesn’t mean your friend will.
Send mylar – not latex – balloons to the hospital. Many people are allergic to the latex in balloons, so they may not be allowed on the floor.
Call and check with the hospital to see what their policy is about sending flowers. As cancer suppresses the immune system, anything that has the potential to cause an allergic reaction should be avoided.
Don’t visit your friend if you’re feeling even a tiny bit sick – people with cancer have suppressed (weakened) immune systems and should not be exposed unnecessarily to germs.
Don’t take it personally if your friend doesn’t want to talk. Sometimes, it’s too overwhelming for your friend to even pick up the phone.
Don’t give medical advice. You’re not a doctor and you’re certainly not familiar enough with your friend’s illness to be making medical calls.
Don’t give advice about how to change their lifestyle and diet. They may already be struggling with completing their normal routine.
Don’t make statements that may imply that your friend has caused their cancer in any way – don’t ask about smoking history, exposure to toxic chemicals – what matters is the NOW, not the before.
Don’t bother touting the latest miracle cure. No one wants to hear it.
Don’t tell them to “chin up” or “cheer up.” They are entitled to their feelings, which may or may not be comfortable for you.
Platitudes are bullshit. Don’t use ’em.
Don’t tell horror stories about people you’ve known who had cancer and died from it.
What NOT To Say When A Friend Has Cancer:
It’s easy to want to express trite platitudes when someone you love has cancer. It’s also extremely challenging to know what to say and what NOT to say. Here are some things not to say to a friend with cancer:
“I know JUST how you feel.” (No, you don’t.)
“I feel helpless.” (Imagine how your friend feels.)
“You need to talk about it.” (Your friend will talk when he or she is ready.)
“Here! This is what you should do. I heard about it on Oprah.” (You don’t know your friend’s illness better than your friend.)
“I don’t know how you’re managing it all. I’d die if it were me.” (Thoughtless!)
“You’re going to be fine.” (You do not know that.)
“How much time do you have?” (Morbid!)
If you have any more tips about how to cope when a loved one has cancer, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!