When a friend is diagnosed with cancer it can be difficult to know how to talk to them. What should you say? Is it ok to try to use humour and make jokes? Should you avoid the subject altogether and pretend everything is normal?
Here are Live Better With’s practical tips for talking – and listening – to someone with cancer…
It’s important to remember that there is no one ‘right’ way of dealing with cancer. Everyone is different, and will experience their own cancer journey. However, research suggests that having good access to support and feeling able to talk about their cancer, if and when they want to, can significantly improve a cancer sufferer’s well-being.
So it’s good to talk. But how should you do it? Here’s our guide…
Acknowledge the cancer
Firstly, acknowledge your friend’s diagnosis. Sometimes cancer sufferers find that people avoid talking about their cancer, or pretend that it hasn’t happened, because they’re not sure what to say. However, this can increase their sense of loneliness and isolation. Instead, tell your friend you understand that the times ahead will be challenging, but that you are their friend and will be there for them, so they don’t need to go through this alone.
Be guided by them
Someone who is going through cancer is likely to feel a range of emotions. They may have good days and bad days, and this is part of the process they are going through. Let yourself be guided by how your friend feels. They may want to talk about the cancer, or they may want to forget about it for a while and focus on something completely different, in which case you could offer some welcome relief. Don’t be afraid to use humour, if it feels appropriate and your friend is responsive to this.
Focus on the conversation
When your friend does want to talk, make sure you are both comfortable and that you have plenty of time. Remove any distractions, such as the TV or mobile phones, so that you can really listen. Let the conversation progress naturally – try not to interrupt them, or worry about what you are going to say next. Making regular eye contact, and giving feedback by making comments or asking some simple follow-up questions, will show that you are genuinely interested in how they are feeling.
Listen, don’t judge or ‘advise’
While being positive can be a good thing, telling someone with a cancer diagnosis to stay strong, or offering unsolicited advice on treatments, therapies or other people’s experiences, can be counterproductive. Your friend may be worried about their recent results, their treatment and its side effects, or their next scan, and they should be able to talk to you freely about their hopes and fears, without feeling judged or that they have to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’.
Make sure the conversation is focused on your friend, and let them know that it’s OK to cry or feel angry.
Keep in regular contact
Keeping in regular contact with your friend will show that you are there for them. Visiting them regularly for a chat and a cuppa, accompanying them on hospital visits, offering to take them out, or calling them once a day for a short catch-up, can all help. It’s important to remember that they may not always feel up to having company, so be flexible with any plans, and consider calling ahead before making any visits so they don’t feel under any pressure.
Show you care
A thoughtful gift, such as a journal, a hobby kit, some books or magazines, or some music or DVDs, can also help your friend to know that you are thinking of them, when you’re not there. You might consider sending them a note or a card, and popping your mobile number inside so they can easily contact you if they need to.
And you can browse a range of other gift ideas for cancer patients, from funky scarves, to comfy PJs and relaxation CDs, here.
Offer practical help
As well as moral and emotional support, offering practical support can also be very helpful. People can sometimes find it hard to ask for help, so try suggesting specific tasks rather than making a general offer of help. This could mean helping your friend with the housework or the shopping, cooking some meals, walking the dog, or watching the children for a while, so that your friend can have a rest. You could also offer to drive them to their treatment, or make notes for them during medical appointments.
Just be there
Remember, you don’t always need to have all the answers. Sometimes there are no words. At those moments, it’s OK to not know what to say – just offering a genuine listening ear can be very helpful. And if your friend doesn’t feel like talking, just sitting quietly with them and keeping them company, or watching a movie together on the sofa, is OK too.
Look after yourself, too
Supporting someone with cancer can be physically and emotionally draining. Remember that you will be experiencing a range of feelings about your friend’s diagnosis, and it’s important to take care of yourself too. Make sure you take some time out to relax. Many people find that relaxation techniques, such as yoga and mindfulness, can help. The Live Better With community recommend The Little Book of Mindfulness, which offers a range of stress-busting exercises.
Read the complete Live Better With guide for carers here.
Having a cancer diagnosis can be a challenging and life-changing experience. However, there are lots of ways of showing that you care, including talking to your friend about how they feel. At this difficult time, friendship can make all the difference.
What have you found helpful, as a friend of someone who’s going through cancer? If you have any tips to share, or if you are looking for advice, join us in the Live Better With Cancer Community Forum.