Learning that a good friend has been diagnosed with cancer leaves many people sad, angry, helpless and unsure of how to be supportive. It’s a scary reality that few of us can escape these days with cancer striking one in two men and one in three women in the United States and the United Kingdom. We know that a strong support system helps cancer patients thrive through, and ultimately survive, this devastating diagnosis.
While conventional medicine rarely considers community and friendship in their treatment plans, at Hope4Cancer, we approach healing holistically — and a patient’s support system is paramount in recovery. For more than two decades, researchers have investigated the role of social relationships on cancer survivability. The importance of a strong support system in cancer recovery is clear. Patients with solid emotional support tend to better adjust to the changes cancer brings to their lives, have a more optimistic outlook and often report a better quality of life. Mortality rates decrease with patients who have strong cancer support systems.
How Can You Help?
First, never forget that people with cancer are just that: people. They are going through a scary time in their life and can use some support from friends and family.
Psychologists are just beginning to explore why some friends seem to disappear during challenging times, or struggle to cope with their friends’ difficulties. Chances are that your friend may not be hearing from people who used to be close confidantes.
In light of a diagnosis, your friendship may be more important than ever. Here are four ways you can serve a friend who is facing a cancer diagnosis:
- Consistent conversation
You may worry that you don’t know what to say to a friend facing a cancer diagnosis. But the most important thing isn’t what you say; the most important thing is that you stay connected. That’s why it’s more important than ever to reach out regularly.
Especially when our lives get busy, it’s easy to let weeks go by without reaching out to our friends. So call when you can — even if you have just five minutes between meetings, let your friend know you’re thinking of them.
Structure the conversation to your friend’s energy levels, so they don’t feel guilty or overwhelmed about not being able to talk. Check in to see if he or she has the energy for a conversation, and if so, start talking. If not, let him or her know you understand and that you’ll call again in a few days to see if he or she is up for a conversation.
- Share from your heart
Have you ever heard the saying, “friendship is a two-way street”? Keep this top of mind when walking with your friend through a cancer diagnosis and the ensuing treatment process. In light of health challenges, it’s easy to feel like you need to make all the effort in the friendship.
Just as you did before the diagnosis, give your friend opportunities to help you. Share authentically about your life. Ask for opinion, ideas or advice with the challenges you are facing. Bring up some of the common interests that helped you begin a friendship in the first place. Talk about music you both enjoy, a mutual favorite TV show or favorite book genres. Share a funny story or silly moment from your daily life that might make your friend smile. Help your friend maintain an active role in the friendship – even if you don’t get the response you expect.
Remember, your friend may be sick of talking about cancer, which can get all-consuming. He or she may want to hear about the mundane things in life and all the things you shared before a diagnosis got in the way!
- Be there — practically
There’s a tendency to respond to a cancer diagnosis by telling a friend that you’re always there to help, or to let you know if they need anything. But statements like these put the responsibility back on the patient to reach out to you, and many people struggle to ask for help even when they need it most.
Instead, suggest practical ways you might help your friend. Offer to take care of any urgent errands your friend or the caregiver needs right away. Your friend may appreciate it more if you take care of frequent, scheduled tasks, rather than fewer ones that take a lot of time. Consider offering to mow the lawn every Saturday morning, or to wash clothes every Wednesday evening. If your friend is traveling for treatment, offer to take them to or from the airport.
Live far away from your friend? Organizing what needs to be done is often the most challenging aspect, and this can be done remotely. Get a list of tasks, then use online tools to organize friends, neighbors and co-workers to help complete them. Don’t forget to share the details with others. For example, a cancer patient may be on a special diet, so if you want to help with a meal, get their nutrition guidelines in advance.
- Affirm their feelings
Whether you’re visiting in person, talking by phone or corresponding by email, affirm your friend in whatever emotions they are experiencing. From fears and frustrations to joy and optimism, come alongside him or her in any emotions s/he’s experiencing. Tell your friend that it’s okay to share how he or she feels, and that you’re always here to listen.
Resist the urge to change the subject. Allow your friend to be negative, withdrawn or silent. Understand that his or her emotions and attitude may change as treatment goes on, and all are valid. If you’re in person, don’t be afraid to touch, hug, or shake hands with your friend — it may be just what they need. Just check in so you know what will feel good. Cry with your friend and laugh with your friend. Show that you still care for your friend, no matter how he or she is feeling.
A cancer diagnosis is life-changing, and it may be challenging to know how to help a friend with cancer. But we at Hope4Cancer have seen the impact of strong friendships on our patients. The support of a good friend can make a world of difference in recovery.