Being a Friend to Someone With Cancer


Being a Friend to Someone With Cancer

While on the book tour, the number one question that people asked me (and I am asked on a daily basis) is “How do I be a friend to someone with Cancer?” In light of this question and all of the new blog readers, I thought I would re-post an oldie but goodie:  “Being a friend to someone with cancer.”


It’s so easy to connect with friends when talking over lunch, catching up while going for a hike, or planning a dinner party. However, if cancer strikes your friend, the dynamics of your relationship will change in a big way! I have experienced this both as someone who has had cancer as well as in the position of being a friend of someone who has cancer.

As I have said before, cancer does not happen in isolation. It didn’t just happen to me. It happens to a person’s family, friends, and community. What this means to you, the friend of someone who has cancer, is that you have the opportunity to play an important supporting role for your friend throughout their cancer journey. Don’t feel overwhelmed or helpless. They may see you as of their most important Silver Linings through out their sickness.

Here are some suggestions on how to support your friend through cancer:

1. Be present. This does not mean being physically present at all times because not everyone wants to be visited when they are sick. However, being present means doing little things such as helping with childcare, dropping off food, running errands, sending a small note, or suggesting a good movie or book. In this way, you are being present through random acts of kindness which will go a long way with your friend.

2. Be inquisitive. First, ask your friend if they are up to talking. If they are, follow by asking specifically what you could do that would be beneficial for them during treatment. Although questions like these may be hard to ask, being inquisitive shows how much you care about your friend and that you want to be sensitive and aware of their needs. It is ok if they do not have an answer for you. Your thoughtfulness in asking will be appreciated.

3. Be calm. Calmness goes a long way in maintaining perspective and balance. In my own experience, I especially appreciated when my friends didn’t try to problem solve (the often unsolvable problems) and didn’t flinch when they saw my bald head and anorexic body. Also, let me tell ya, your friend with cancer will not want to be around someone who brings in the drama. Be a friend that intentionally remains cool, calm, and collected through out the process.

4. Be persistent. Many friends feel that they should somewhat distance themselves from their friend with cancer because they don’t want to bother them when they are sick. While this sensitivity is thoughtful, it may distance you from your friend who needs support. Instead of distancing yourself, be persistent. Send an email or voicemail to your friend that says “I’m thinking about you. You don’t need to respond. Just know.” A simple gesture like this is extremely fueling and loving towards your friend.

5. Be normal.  Talk with your friend the same way you did before they became ill. There is so much hopefulness in the ordinary, everyday life. Your friend who is sick will want to feel as if your relationship has not changed because of their illness. Show them that it hasn’t. If you feel nervous about visiting or talking with your friend who has cancer, make a list of topics to begin dialogue.

I’d love to hear what has worked for you (and maybe even what hasn’t!).


Leave a comment


  1. says

    There are times I “want to tell the story” about my cancer, what’s next and how I’m feeling. Then there are places e.g. My sons soccer games, concerts, where I don’t want to bring Cancer. I just want to be like everyone else. Hopefully this is helpful information in that the person with Cancer will guide you.

    • silverpen says

      I wholeheartedly agree, Mim. You are welcome to share your story here.
      I sure do understand the desire to be like everyone else. For sure.
      Please take good care and stay in touch!

  2. carol says

    thank you. one of my besties was just diagnosed with breast cancer. now the shock is wearing off. I told her she will overcome it. she has no choice

  3. Carolee Groux says

    I was just reading "The End of Your Life Book Club" by Will Schwalbe, our "Book Bunch" read for this month. In it I came across a reference to the book, "Etiquette of Illness/What to Say When You Can't Find the Words". It was written in 2004 by Susan Halpern, a social worker and psychotherapist, who is herself a cancer survivor.
    Halpern has some good suggestions:
    1. Ask "Do you want to talk about how you're feeling?" This lets the person decide.
    2. Don't ask if there's anything you can do. Suggest things, or if it's not intrusive, just do them.
    3. You don't have to talk all the time. Sometimes just being there is enough.

  4. Carolee Groux says

    This is great advice on how to support a friend or family member with cancer. I was happen to read it again; such good reminders to draw upon.
    Thanks again, Hollye.

  5. Carol Williams says

    Your suggestions are great. What I have found so interesting during this journey (I'm 1/4 way through my chemo journey of 5 months) is how strangers approach you and want to tell you their horror stories; or those you thought were friends suddenly make it all about them and have so much drama around what it means to them. Thanks for all your positive insights – it really helps on those days when its hard to find the silver lining.

    • silverpen says

      Isn't that the truth, Carol? It is amazing. Thank you for writing. Sending my very best wishes to you!!