What People With Cancer Wish the Rest of Us Understood

There isn’t a vaccine or 100% effective treatment that can prevent cancer (yet). Once you have it, it’s often treatable, but not always curable. This is a hard reality to handle, even if you aren’t the one who’s sick.

How do you support a friend or family member who’s going through something like this? What can you say? What do you do? They you — here’s how you can help.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to them

Two people drinking coffee and holding each other's hands.

You don’t need to be asked for support. | Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

“Let me know if you need anything” is one of the worst things you can say to a friend with cancer. You’re putting pressure on them to keep you in their thoughts, and that’s not fair. You might not know what they need, but don’t wait for them to tell you — they won’t. Do something. Offer to help with shopping or cleaning or getting their kids from place to place. Offer to drive them to an appointment, or take them somewhere to do something fun. Don’t just sit and wait around for answers. Take action. That’s the best way to show them you’re doing your best.

Sometimes, talking about it actually helps

Two people hold hands as they walk through a field.

They might have a lot on their mind. | Betyarlaca/iStock/Getty Images

The American Cancer Society encourages friends and family members of cancer patients to talk about the situation. Don’t feel like you can’t talk about it, or that you will upset your friend if you bring it up. Sometimes, talking about your questions and concerns is a healthy way for both of you to cope. If they don’t want to talk about it, they’ll likely say so. For some people, though, addressing the reality of their illness out loud and discussing it openly helps them deal with it in a positive, yet realistic way.

When they have energy, take them out

Two people hold hands as they sit outdoors together.

They might already feel different enough, so treat them to a normal day out. | Jacob Ammentorp Lund/iStock/Getty Images

According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, even a little exercise, like taking a stroll around the block, can be good for someone undergoing cancer treatment. If they have the energy, they might feel restless — ask them if they want to go for a walk! Don’t assume they’re bound to their home because they have cancer. Some fresh air and movement might benefit them (and you) physically. Emotionally, getting to spend time with you is an even better bonus.

Other times, they will want to be left alone

Young depressed cancer patient standing in front of hospital window.

Respect their privacy and space. | Prudkov

Your friend appreciates your support. There are days they’ll love having you around. However, keep in mind that no matter how much you think you know about what they’re going through, they’re living through their own cancer diagnosis. They might want to spend some time alone. They might want to spend some time in a support group, with those who can relate to them on a level you can’t. It isn’t that they don’t want your help. But you’re still an outsider — there’s only so much you can do to comfort them.

Don’t ask them ‘how they feel’

Doctor talking to a patient in his office.

They get asked this question around the clock. | Minerva Studio/iStock/Getty Images

A person with cancer might not want to think about or acknowledge how they’re feeling when you ask, says Jane E. Brody in her New York Times column. Sometimes, they’re feeling fine. Other times, they’re feeling terrible — like they have cancer — but they don’t necessarily want to tell you that. Instead of asking your friend how they’re feeling, ask them the same questions you always have. What are they up to? Have they read any good books lately? Something about sports (or whatever the two of you like to talk about)? Conversations don’t always have to start and end with cancer.

Cancer can make your relationship stronger

Family and friends posing for a picture.

Your family could become stronger during this time. | Monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images

According to Cancer Treatment Centers of America, circumstances like a cancer diagnosis and treatment can strengthen many relationships. Hard times often bring out the best in people, and close friends can provide the encouraging presence a person with cancer needs to get through each day. Don’t worry about doing everything right or wrong. Sometimes, being the friend you’ve always been — approaching them with compassion and a willingness to listen — is more than enough.

It’s OK if you need to keep your distance — but don’t be a stranger

Two happy affectionate young women hugging each other in a close embrace.

Listen to their cues and be understanding. | UberImages/iStock/Getty Images

The National Cancer Institute says you should know your limits¬†when supporting someone with cancer. Don’t feel like you have to do too much. Sometimes, less is more. If you need to grieve privately in your own way, don’t force yourself to stay by your friend’s side every moment of every day. However, remind your friend you care. They’re still the person you know and love, even with their illness. Even the little things, like short texts on days you’re not feeling up to seeing them in person, still matter.