Supporting a Friend with Cancer
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By Hester Hill Schnipper

A Friend Indeed

How do you support a friend who has cancer?

By Hester Hill Schnipper

It can be painful and difficult to learn that a friend has cancer. You may feel that you don’t know how best to help or even, sometimes, what to say. You want to support and love your friend, but you may not know how. What’s more, your friend may seem unreceptive, easily irritated and generally not herself.

Friends on a swingWhen a friend has cancer, the usual rules and responsibilities of a close relationship change. No longer will you have a 50-50 or even a 70-30 connection. Instead, for the duration of your friend’s treatment, you will need to carry at least 90 percent of the friendship, and your needs will come a distant second.

There will be times when your friend wants to speak only about cancer, and other times when he does not want to hear the word. So although you may think that the details and problems in your life are unimportant to someone who is struggling through chemotherapy, there will be times that your friend will be desperate to have a normal conversation and want to hear all about your job or relationships. How will you know which time is which? Listen to your friend’s cues.

Here are a few specific suggestions that may help you support a friend with cancer:

1. Wait for your friend to bring up details about a pathology report or staging. Don’t ask questions; let him take the lead.

2. Refrain from asking about the prognosis or, after treatment ends, whether the doctors know if the treatment has worked. (They don’t. Only the safe passage of time will answer this question.)

3. Remember that saying things like, “Anyone could be hit by a bus tomorrow,” is neither reassuring nor helpful.

4. Respect your friend’s individual experience. Do not tell her about others who sailed through chemotherapy or, alternately, suffered each day of treatment.

5. Send cards and e-mails and call often. You want your friend to know that you are thinking about him, and that he does not need to get back to you soon—or at all.

6. Call your friend if you are nearby or when heading out to run errands and ask if she needs anything.

7. Drop off a meal or do a carpool run or care for her children. A fabulous resource is This is a private way to organize useful help among friends and community groups online.

8. Offer to do something specific rather than saying, “Call me if you need something.” And then offer again later.

9. Send a small care package occasionally. This can be bubble bath or a couple of cotton scarves or trashy novels or some other small treat.

10. Ask your friend if he would like you to visit or if, later, he might like to come visit you. Don’t assume that you know the best time to get together or when he most needs company and support.

Be ready to be flexible. Most important, stay close. All cancer patients find that some so-called friends abandon them after a diagnosis. Cancer can last a long time, and people move on. Good friends are those who are with us for the duration, who listen carefully and who say, “I’m here.”  

Hester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor and the chief of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She also manages an online breast cancer support group on the hospital’s website.


(photo: © Bonnie Briant)