What to Do (& Not Do) When a Loved One Is Diagnosed With Cancer

Someone you care about has just been diagnosed with cancer. What do you say? What do you do? You probably feel totally helpless, right?

Before being diagnosed with cancer, I had no idea what to do or say in such situations. In fact, I'm sure that in the past I handled such moments with a lack of grace and finesse, simply for lack of knowledge and experience. And, honestly, every situation is unique, and there are no clear rights or wrongs in these circumstances. However, what I can tell you after having recently been diagnosed with cancer is that there were some things that were comforting and helpful to me, and others, not so much

  1. Don't share stories about how your now-dead friend had the exact same diagnosis, symptoms, doctor, or treatment plan. As new cancer patients, we're not ready for such information. We'll likely become hungry for cancer stories later and have hundreds of questions. In the beginning, however, if you can't say something positive, don't say anything at all. Seriously.

  2. Don't ask, "What can I do?"-- instead, think of things you can do that might be helpful and just do them. However, make sure that they do not require input or participation from your newly diagnosed friend. After my husband brought me home from the hospital following my cancer surgery, we found that a friend had prepared and frozen a week's worth of meals for us and left them on our front porch in a big Styrofoam cooler. With instructions. If she had asked us if we needed food, or what we wanted, or when would be a good time to deliver it, we probably would have thanked her very much and said that we were all set. But she just did it. And those meals came in so handy. We had other friends bring by food and just leave it, without requiring a face-to-face visit, which was lovely, as in those early days, I simply wasn't up for it.

  3. Don't put on "Cancer Face." You know, The Look. That expression of pity, sadness, or concern bestowed upon the recently diagnosed the first time you see them after hearing the News. I know that these looks are unintentional, and that the emotions behind them are very real, but try not to appear as though you are saying your final good-byes in these moments. It can be a little alarming for the recipient, especially in those early days. Ditto for voicemail messages. Try to avoid crying if possible when leaving a message saying that you Heard the News. Cry before leaving the message, or after, but try to keep it together for those 60 seconds during which you are actually being recorded. And if you can't manage that, at least make a little joke acknowledging it at the end of the message (rather than just hanging up mid-sob). This is not to say that it's not okay to have a good cry with your friend. I had some very healing cries with some close friends after my diagnosis. But I would suggest that you take your cues from your friend. Don't be the one to initiate the sob-fest. And certainly don't put your friend in the position of having to comfort you.

  4. Do think healthy when it comes to gifts of food. In the South, we like to bake casseroles whenever someone dies or becomes ill ... big, rich, gooey casseroles filled with butter and cheese and starchy noodles and likely topped with Ritz crackers. And big messes of fried chicken. And pies. Soon after the diagnosis, the food started arriving at our house in droves. My husband (of the hummingbird metabolism) was absolutely thrilled. He was eating chicken pot pies for dinner and chocolate chip cookies for dessert and snacking on cheese straws in between meals. And I know every single one of those covered dishes was prepared with nothing but love and affection. But as I began reading about what foods were "good" for cancer and which foods were bad, I realized that the foods that were filling our refrigerator and freezer were essentially all on the "bad" list -- sugars, starches, meats, dairy products, processed foods, and the like. One thing that everyone seems to agree upon -- from the American Cancer Society to the crunchiest of holistic practitioners -- is that a clean, organic, plant-based, largely raw, preferably vegan diet helps to create an environment in one's body where cancer does not thrive. So, if you're going to deliver food to your newly diagnosed friend -- which will no doubt be tremendously appreciated -- make it healthy.

  5. Do share your usual day-to-day gossip. Don't avoid telling your friend about your latest problem at work or the terrible thing your boyfriend did last night. We're still the same old friend you've always had ... don't shield us from reality. After being in cancer world all day, we'd love to dish with you just as much as we always did, if not more. In fact, we're probably starved for the latest mindless gossip ... anything not cancer-related. But by the same token, we might want to talk about the cancer, so leave that door open as well. And if you don't know what to say, just say that. "I don't know what to say." The odds are, your friend doesn't know what to say either. You're in the same boat.

  6. Don't disappear. You may not know what to say or do; you may feel awkward or weepy or uncomfortable. At those times, it's easy just to fade into the background. To not call, to not visit. To not say anything because you don't know what to say. Try to resist this very human urge. Try to just show up, even if it's just to leave a voice mail or send an e-mail or drop a card in the mail. Let the other person know that you're thinking about them when you are. You'll both be glad for it.

  7. Do give her a pass on the thank-you note -- and anything else she's not up to doing. When delivering a gift, dropping off a meal, sending a note, or leaving a message, it's nice to add the out clause "please don't feel you have to respond." Your friend may be inundated with gifts and meals and cards and letters and be feeling overwhelmed about not having acknowledged every item. Let them know it's okay. And definitely don't call or write just to make sure your friend received the gift. Odds are, they did. Asking about it just adds to the guilt factor. Also, if your friend doesn't feel like talking about the C word, be sure and let them know that's perfectly okay ... you're there for them whenever they are ready to talk.

More from The Stir: 7 Things a New Mom Battling Cancer Is Afraid Of

Almost universally, diagnoses of serious illness catch everyone off guard -- the patient, the patient's immediate family, friends, acquaintances ... everyone down the line. Unless you're an 80-year-old life-long chain-smoker just diagnosed with lung cancer, chances are, no one saw it coming. Cancer's like that, I'm finding. And we're all just feeling our way through. The bottom line is that if you react with love, your friend or loved one will know it. And that's all that matters.


Photo via Brooke Kelly Photography 

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