Health Advocate Blog

Showing support to a friend with cancer

Each October, many people try to support efforts to raise awareness and fight breast cancer by wearing pink, donating money to a worthwhile cause or participating in a walk or other event. But what happens when breast cancer, or any type of cancer or long-term illness, hits closer to home? When a family member, friend, neighbor, or colleague has been diagnosed, it is often difficult to know the best way to help.

Wearing pink may show your support, but there are a number of other things you can do (and not do) to help your loved one know you are there for them. Remember, each person is different in how they react to their diagnosis and what types of help and support may be most appreciated, but this is a helpful guide to get started.

How to help

  • Bring food – When someone is facing life-altering news, food is likely not top of mind, but nourishment is key. Drop off easy-to-heat dishes (in containers they don’t need to return), buy groceries for them, or even pack their kids’ lunches once a week. If possible, check with the person’s caregiver or family to see if they have any treatment-related food sensitivities. And keep in mind that they may not be up for a visit when you bring by meals, so don’t plan to stick around unless they are up for a chat. Your kindness speaks volumes.
  • Stay in touch – People diagnosed with cancer may feel very alone. Let them know you are thinking of them by sending emails, cards, text messages or calling them from time to time. If they don’t answer or respond right away, know they got it and just may not be up for talking right now, but it means a lot. If you are close enough, offer to accompany her to an appointment or go to yoga together if she’s interested.
  • Organize a group gift or support – Get together with other co-workers, friends or neighbors to ensure the person and their family receives consistent support. Oftentimes, everyone shows up immediately to offer help, but that tends to fade away with time. The person needs and will appreciate ongoing love and support. Whether it’s a care basket of items that might be useful or taking turns to drop off meals or babysit, this helps keep the momentum going. If the person is a colleague and your company allows this, donate unused paid time off to give her the flexibility and opportunity to receive treatment without being stressed about returning to work.
  • Follow their lead – Be a good listener and determine what the person is in the mood for that day. From jokes and gossip to a shoulder to cry on, the person is experiencing a slew of emotions, so tune into her needs to be the best support.
  • Join her in her fight – Although wearing pink on its own may not make a huge difference, starting a team in her honor for a local fundraising event may show your support.

Things to avoid

  • Asking how you can help – The person is overwhelmed as it is. Saying “Let me know how I can help,” will often result in nothing. Take charge and offer something specific or talk directly with the person’s caregiver or family to take on a direct task that will help. Every little bit counts.
  • Don’t compare or scare – Remember that each person’s experience with breast cancer or other conditions will be different. Telling them about your brother-in-law’s cousin’s neighbor is not helpful and can either provide false hope or scare them. Keep the focus on them and their experience.
  • Forget the person before cancer – Even if they are in the middle of this big and scary thing, and don’t be afraid to acknowledge that, remember the person has a life before, during and after cancer. Ask about their kid’s game or if they watched the latest episode of their favorite show. They are not defined by their diagnosis.

Other helpful resources

To learn more, please visit any of the websites below that provide additional tips on how to best support a friend, co-worker or loved one with cancer:

Remember, just being there for the person is the first step to creating a supportive network to help them during this difficult journey.


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