What to Do When a Friend Gets Cancer


A prostate cancer survivor offers his thoughts on what you should (and shouldn't) say to someone who was recently diagnosed.

You hear from a friend that a mutual friend has just been diagnosed with cancer and is beginning treatment. You want to say or do something, but you are unsure about how to proceed. The idea of cancer makes you uncomfortable, and you aren’t sure if it’s best to do anything. Nevertheless, you eventually decide to reach out to the friend, but you still aren’t sure how you should approach the situation. What do you do?

As a metastatic prostate cancer patient diagnosed three years ago, here are my thoughts.

Let’s start with a couple of don’ts:

Don’t say, “I know you’ll be fine.” Your friend with cancer doesn’t know if he or she will be fine. The whole beginning of the cancer journey is scary, full of anxiety and comes with new experiences that have uncertain outcomes.

Don’t say, “I knew someone who had that same type of cancer, and he’s fine.” Chances are that “someone” did not have the exact same diagnosis or treatment. This is a “don’t” for the same reason noted above. There may be a good time to share this information, but not at the outset.

So what do you do? The first thing you should know is that your friend with cancer will be very glad to hear from you. You should tell her how you got the news, and that you’ve been thinking about her ever since you heard. While some newly-diagnosed people are reluctant to talk about what’s going on, this is the exception. Expect your friend to be open about what’s going on.

Contact from friends who care and provide a listening and sympathetic ear is therapeutic.

A good place to start is to ask how she found out about having cancer. Was it because of a routine medical exam? Was it because something unusual or suspicious caused her to consult a doctor? Was it because of concerns due to family history? Or was something else going on?

Once you’ve opened up this line of discussion, other subjects will flow naturally. These would include, “What sort of treatment is planned?” “Where will you be going for treatment?” “When will your treatment start?” “Will you be missing work?” “How is your family getting along?”

These topics will also provide the opportunity to show your willingness to help. Rather than offering a general “What can I do to help?” Be more specific. “May I drive you to an appointment?” or “Would you like a companion to sit with you at chemotherapy?” “While you’re off work, can we get together for lunch?” “When would be a good time for a visit?” Whether accepted or not, these gestures are appreciated.

The more you talk, the easier it will be to continue talking, and, if she’s comfortable with it, you can move it into more topics unrelated to cancer. This recognizes that there is more to life than just cancer, that you remain interested in other aspects of life, and that you don’t see cancer as defining her life.

Finish with a promise to check in soon and to plan an activity that would be considered a normal social event unrelated to cancer—a movie, lunch, going shopping, etc.

Once you have completed the initial outreach, you will see that it wasn’t as hard as you thought it would be. You’ll be glad you had a good conversation with your friend, and she will be glad too. You will have laid the foundation for future communication and, in spite of her cancer, for resuming typical activities that you have enjoyed together.

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Dr. Kelly Stratton
Image of Dana Frost.