You’ve just heard that a good friend of yours has cancer. After you get past your initial shock and sorrow, you begin to ask yourself what you would say when you see her. That’s not an easy question to answer. One hundred statements run through your mind; you reject every one as a cliché or trite. First, you will want to know how long she has had this diagnosis. If she just got the news, she is in the very early stages of her own grief. But if she has had time to absorb and get used to the news, she is probably further along in the process. There is a difference between what you would say in each of these scenarios.
Some rules to keep in mind before you visit: Yes, you are sad and can hardly contain your own feelings. But remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about your friend—what she is experiencing, how she feels physically and emotionally, and whether she is even ready to talk about her illness.
Here are some things to consider before talking to or visiting your friend.
- Process your own feelings beforehand. Learning that a friend has cancer is never easy. Take time to acknowledge and cope with your own emotions before you see her. Yes, you are sad and can hardly contain your own feelings. But remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about your friend—what she is experiencing, how she feels physically and emotionally, whether she is even ready to talk about her illness.
- Learn as much as you can about the diagnosis. Your friend may have told the same story many times by the time you see her. If possible, ask her spouse or partner to bring you up to speed on the basics. Repeat it back to them to be sure you have the correct information. If there are details they don’t know or don’t want to discuss, let it go.
- Put yourself in your friend’s shoes. Remember a time when you were ill or didn’t know what to expect. How did you feel when friends came to see you? Did you talk freely about your issue or steer the conversation in another direction? What did you need from your friends—sympathy, encouragement, humor, or to act as if nothing was wrong?
- Keep an open mind about what you will see and feel. Your friend’s appearance may have changed. Fatigue, weight loss, and hair lossare common side effects of cancer and many treatments. Start your visit on a positive but honest note by saying “I’m so happy to see you,” rather than, “You look wonderful!” which is probably not true, or commenting on how much she has changed, which she already knows.
- Don’t do the following:
- Don’t ask what you can do to help or say “Let me know if you need anything.” Many people will never ask for help even though they need it. Instead, jump in and do whatever you can to make things easier for your friend. Deliver meals. Go to appointments. Listen. Hold hands. Offer to watch the kids or walk the dog.
- Don’t focus on your own worries and sadness about your friend’s diagnosis. The patient or caregiver shouldn’t feel like she has to take care of you. Instead, offer strength, humor, and practical help.
- Don’t talk about other people’s cancer outcomes. Remember, everyone is unique, and hearing other people’s cancer stories is irrelevant to your friend’s situation and unhelpful.
- Don’t forget that friends also need encouragement and support after cancer treatment has finished. After treatment, your friend will be trying to find her “new normal” in this next phase of life. Friendships are an important part of that.
- Don’t say the following:
- I know just how you feel. (You don’t.)
- I know just what you should do. (You are not an oncologist.)
- I’m sure you’ll be fine. (This may not be the case.)
- Don’t worry. (That probably isn’t possible.)
- How long do you have? (Seriously?)
If this seems like a lot to remember, think of it this way: Before you call or visit, center yourself and take time to do some sensible things to prepare yourself. The lists of what not to do or say are mostly common sense with just a few suggestions directly related to your friend’s illness. They all boil down to one statement: Treat your friend the way you would want to be treated.
*Sources and more information