When someone you know is going through cancer treatment, knowing the best way to support them might not be something that comes easily. Regardless of how close you are, everyone’s experience of cancer is different; nobody can anticipate their reaction to it, so finding the right words and actions to show your friend that you’re there for them can be tricky.
During uncertain times, it’s natural to want to try and keep your friend in good spirits. But under such unique circumstances, it’s not always easy to know how exactly to do that – especially when they’re going through something so physically and mentally demanding.
UK Google search volumes show a huge yearly uplift for ‘how to cheer up someone with cancer’ – increasing by 550%. To help guide us on our good intentions and show our support, Dr Tim Woodman, Medical Director of Policy and Cancer Services at Bupa UK, shares four simple tips on helping a friend going through cancer treatment.
What to say
You might be worried about saying something that makes your friend feeling worse, so it may be tempting to avoid saying anything at all. However, doing this might leave your friend feel alone. It’s important to show your friend that you’re there for them, and you can do this in a number of ways. Start by choosing a time and place where you can talk together without interruption.
Your friend may want to talk about their diagnosis but might not feel comfortable unless asked about it. Allow them to share how they’re feeling and how they’d like to be supported – if nobody else asks them, not speaking about it may make their fears or worries feel bigger. Talking through their feelings may also help them to adjust to any changes they’re going through.
Try not to be discouraged if your friend becomes angry or upset – don’t take it personally or try to cheer them up, and instead just sit with them in their feelings if they’re happy to, while reminding them that what they’re feeling is entirely normal.
Remind yourself that you don’t always have to have a response. For example, Mullerian cancer can be a hard thing to talk about, so simply saying ‘I don’t know what to say’ can be a useful way to promote honesty between you.
Remember the world outside of cancer
Don’t forget that your friend may also prefer to talk about things other than cancer – it’s important to still have different topics of conversation, like TV, sports or your friends. It can also be useful to set a limit with your friend on how long you talk about their treatment, as these discussions can be tiring. You could arrange to do something nice together after you’ve had your chat to help lighten the mood, too.
Regular calls, texts, emails or sending a card can help your friend to feel supported as they go through their treatment. Remind them that there’s no pressure on them to reply when you reach out; just let them know that you’re there if they need anything. Your friend may not want to talk, but knowing that you’re thinking of them should help them to feel supported.
Look after yourself
Remember, as your friend goes through treatment, you will be going through a range of emotions too, and it’s important to share them. There are plenty of outlets for you to express how you’re feeling – try another friend, family member, GP or healthcare team for emotional support.
What not to say
Keep things realistic
When your friend is going through difficult times during their treatment, it might feel natural to encourage them to be optimistic or tell them that everything will be fine. These aren’t helpful things to say, as it may make your friend feel like their worries aren’t being listened to, so they may become less likely to share them with you.
Likewise, refrain from telling them to ‘be strong’ or saying that you know how they feel, as no one can honestly understand what someone going through their cancer treatment feels like.
Don’t compare your friend’s experiences to someone else’s or offer advice they’ve not asked for. As everyone’s cancer is different, these kinds of anecdotes or presumptions can be harmful. Your friend’s healthcare team will be able to give them insights and help specific to their diagnosis.
Be careful using humour
Talking about cancer might feel awkward at times. Humour can often be a way to help break the ice in situations like these, but if your friend may be feeling sad or worried, you should only use it if your friend does, too.
Showing your friend that you’re listening to them can make a world of difference. These simple tips will help you to help your friend feel understood:
Don’t feel like you have to fill the silence
Silence can be a natural part of the conversation, and it can also allow your friend to collect their thoughts and share anything else they’d like to. Don’t be scared of a lull in conversation – take your time to digest the information your friend gives you, rather than using the time they’re speaking to think of the next thing you’ll say. Remember, nobody is expecting you to have all the answers – sometimes your friend might just need an outlet.
Honesty is the best policy
Open conversations may invite some home truths you weren’t expecting to hear from your friend. These feelings might be hard to hear, but it’s important to respect them and let your friend know that they’re welcome to share anything that they’re feeling or going through.
If they get upset as they’re talking to you, let them know that you understand how they’re feeling by saying something along the lines of ‘I can see how upsetting sharing this is for you’.
Check your understanding
Repeating back what you’ve understood your friend to say, using phrases like ‘So you mean that…?’ can help to show your friend that you’ve really been listening and help them to expand further on what they’ve said and share more with you, if needed.
Practical ways to show your support
If you feel physically well, visit your friend and spend some time with them, particularly if you’re worried that they might be feeling lonely during their treatment. Going for a walk together or watching a film or TV show can make a huge difference and give them a sense of escapism from what they’re going through. But, equally, it’s important to let them know that it’s completely OK for them to tell you know that they want to be alone or not want visitors – give them the option.
When they’re going to their appointments, you could offer to go with them, or talk about their appointment with you, if they want to. If you go to their appointment with them, you could offer to write things down to help them remember what has been said, as it can be a lot to take in.
You could also make your friend some meals that can be frozen at home if they need a quick, nutritious dish. Similarly, you could offer to help them out with tasks at home like laundry, shopping, gardening, and the school run. It might be helpful to split out these tasks amongst yourself and your friends if they’re able to help too. Whilst these tasks may not immediately cheer your friend up, it’ll be one less worry for them as they go through their treatment.
Dr Tim Woodman is the medical director of policy and cancer services at Bupa UK.