Supporting a Loved One with Cancer

Supporting a Loved One with Cancer

“I have cancer.” They are three words you never want to hear from a friend, family member or significant other. Learning that a loved one has cancer can be very overwhelming and scary.

You probably have a ton of questions you want to ask, but are unsure how to talk to them or act around them. You want to be supportive and helpful, but may not know the best way. You’re not alone.

Unfortunately, there is no script or handbook with all the perfect things to do and say. But here are some ideas about ways to show your support.

Check in Often

Cancer can often leave a person feeling lonely and isolated. By checking in often, you can bring them comfort and a welcome distraction. Laughter is the best medicine: send them funny texts throughout the week, call them to chat briefly, and ask them when you can visit. Know that they may not be up for talking or for a visit. Still, just knowing you are there and thinking about them can make them feel loved and cared for.

If possible, plan your visit for a time when their caregiver needs to be out of the house. Being a caregiver is never easy, and they can use all the support you can give.

Treat Them as Normally as Possible

Keep in mind that while your loved one has cancer, they aren't defined by it. Given all the doctor’s visits and conversations with worried friends and family, they may want a break from talking and thinking about cancer. Stick to normal activities, whether that’s inviting them to a movie, dinner or party. Let them decide if they are up for it or not.

Don’t Be Intrusive

Let your loved one decide how much they want to tell you about their diagnosis and illness. Don’t press with intrusive questions. Avoid asking:

  • What symptoms did the doctors say you can expect?
  • What’s your prognosis?

That’s not to say you should ignore their illness, but follow their lead. Let them know you're there to listen, but it's also fine if they'd rather not talk about it.

Offer to Help in Specific Ways

It’s second nature to say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” when someone you care about is going through a tough time. Your loved one may be too overwhelmed to think of ways you can help. Take away that burden by offering specific ways you can lend a hand. You might offer:

  • Shop for their groceries.
  • Make a meal or organize a meal schedule with other friends and family members.
  • Take them to doctor’s visits.
  • Watch their kids or take them to and from school.
  • Help with house cleaning, laundry, yard work or other chores.
Share Updates with Friends and Family Members

Chances are other members in your circle are just as anxious to find out how your loved one is doing. They may want to know what they can do to help. Offer to be the “point-person” who lets friends, family, and co-workers know when there is news. That way your loved one can rest and not worry about constantly updating the people they care about.

There are great online resources that can make updating loved ones and scheduling meals, visits and child care easier. If you are looking for ways to digitally connect your loved one’s support network, check out websites such as What Friends Do leaving site icon  and Lotsa Helping Hands. leaving site icon 

While each person and situation is unique, these suggestions offer good ideas about ways you can be there for your loved one. Don’t worry too much about not saying or doing the right thing. As long as you are coming from a loving and genuine place, your concern and support will be valued.

Do you have any other tips on ways to support a person coping with cancer? Share them below.

Sources: Being a Friend to Someone with Cancer, leaving site icon American Cancer Society, 2023; Supporting a Friend Who Has Cancer, leaving site icon, 2022

Originally published October 12, 2015; Revised 2019, 2022, 2024