There are some situations in life that no one can possibly prepare for. Learning of a friend’s diagnosis can be just as earth-shattering for friends as it is for the patient. Treatments for cancer can make a healthy person extremely sick, and cancer can become a terminal illness. Despite all of the stress and uncertainty associated with the disease, friends who are sick still need support. How can friends of patients with cancer be a source of support and encouragement?

What to say

it is very easy to avoid a friend with cancer simply because of not knowing what to say. There are certainly plenty of things one could say to a person with cancer that would not be helpful, but there are also plenty of phrases that are comforting. Here are a few of them:

I love you – Remind the friend that he or she is still a person. Reassure them that the relationships they established before the cancer diagnosis are still intact. They are loved, and everyone is rooting for them. They will always have someone they can turn to.

I will always be there for you – Whether due to fear or to not knowing what to say, some friends and even family members tend to distance themselves from a person who has been diagnosed with cancer. Remind them that you will not abandon them, and live up to your promise.

I don’t know what to say – A cancer diagnosis does not turn a person’s friends and family members into sages and poets. Cancer is hard on everyone, so no one is expected to know exactly what to say. It is much better to be honest about not knowing what to say than to avoid talking to the friend out of fear of saying something awkward or unhelpful.

What to do

Instead of asking how you can help, come up with practical ways to help and ask for permission to do those things. A person with cancer has suddenly been catapulted into a new lifestyle where he or she is needier than ever. It is difficult for anyone to ask for help, so a friend is very likely to say that they do not need anything when asked the opened ended question “How can I help?” Examples of practical things that a friend can do include grocery shopping, preparing meals, driving to appointments, and babysitting.

Friends can also be of great assistance by finding programs that help cancer survivors financially or even giving the person some of your own money. Cancer treatments can be extremely expensive, and it is common for cancer survivors to be out of work for several weeks. Dealing with cancer can be as debilitating financially as it is physically. Although a friend may not be in a position to gift someone thousands of dollars, helping a friend explore their job’s FMLA policies or find community resources to help with food and utilities while they are being treated can be extremely helpful. This will allow the person with cancer on getting better rather than dwindling finances.

Be supportive and encouraging

Allow a friend with cancer to take ownership of their feelings. Do not always talk about the disease, but do not force the conversation away from the disease if that is what he or she wants to talk about. Take some of the pressure off of the patient by getting a personal understanding of their disease through research. It can be draining to repeat test results and diagnoses. Remember that each person’s diagnosis and experience is unique. Do not assume that the friend will have the same experience as other patients you learn about.

Communication is the key to any successful relationship. Continue to talk to the friend and to be there. Do not assume what the cancer patient wants. Ask them! Especially when the person battling cancer is younger, parents and other family members are often heavily involved in the patient’s medical care, caregiving, and all of the decisions that need to be made. Out of respect for the family, some friends distance themselves from the patients, especially in the hospital, thinking that they are “getting out of the way.” In reality, a cancer patient still needs and craves friendship. A person who is worried about stepping on the proverbial toes of family members should ask the patient what role they should play. Sometimes, cancer patients want their friends to advocate for their medical wishes, which may be different then what their family wants for them. Rather than being in the way, friends can act as a very useful liaison.

Even in the bleakest of situations, doctors have noted that patients who think positively fair better. A cancer patient is well aware of the survival and remission rates for the type of cancer they have. Someone who has cancer is also thoroughly informed of all of the painful and unpleasant side effects that come along with chemotherapy and radiation. While a friend should not refuse to discuss these topics, it is important to remember that these facts can be discouraging. Do not be the bearer of bad news that is already known. Doctors have noted that positive thinking can be of great benefit to any patient. Some terminal patients have been able to pull through because of their will to live. It is soul-crushing for loved ones to tell a person that they are going to die.

Be present, be encouraging, be human. That is all a friend with cancer expects.