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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nonmember avatar mdw

wish i wouldve had this list 6 yrs ago :/ my best friend of 8 yrs was diagnosed with breast cancer at only 21. Yrs later, after "its all gone!!!!" excitement & "it came back" or "its back in a different spot" depression, ive kinda learned these things & how to handle the news. But at first, with no experience dealing with something like this & not knowing what to do or say, im sure i wasnt as much of a help as i wanted to me :( thank you for writing this...i hope treament goes well for you & look forward to seeing a post about what to do (or dont) when a loved one is cancer free :) :)

nonmember avatar Mike M

If you're interested in hearing a suggestion for a future topic, I personally have been told by a medical intuitive 4 years ago that I had non-Hodgkin lymphoma (cancer of the blood) and some advice I was given was to eat healthier foods. One dietary change that I made (and have stuck with) is eating raw broccoli daily, and I have seen a noticeable improvement in my health (in terms of the symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma) since I began eating broccoli. From that (not to mention that my spirit guide does get rid of the strong bitter taste of raw broccoli so that I am much more willing to eat it - which I personally take as an indicator that broccoli is something I should be eating regularly) and the fact that reducing your odds of developing cancer by eating healthy foods is much easier to go through than chemotherapy and radiation treatment, I'm very much a supporter of spreading knowledge about such foods (which aren't often studied scientifically as it takes money to do studies rather than just the mere desire to help people make healthier choices in their lives) and I would like for more people to be aware of cheap, simple things they can do to live a healthier, happier, and longer life. (Also worth mentioning is that the pH balance of the foods we eat also affect the odds of cancer developing in our body - with an acidic diet [meats and dairy products lead towards this] being more likely to lead to the development of cancer than a more basic diet [vegetables and fruits.])

jalaz77 jalaz77

These are excellent tips. Thank you for sharing

Karen Sussman Glowacki

These are all excellent tips. My favorite quote in your post is, "react with love."

We recently interview lung cancer survivor and author, Lori Hope, about her book, 20 Things People Living with Cancer Want You to Know. She had so many insightful suggestions: http://blog.whatnext.com/blog/peer-perspectives/interview-with-lori-hope-author-of-help-me-live

Thank you,
Karen Glowacki

Tammy J Bolen Willmore

Excellent advice! My cancer diagnosis was a learning experience for what "not" to do or say to others when they are diagnosed with an illness. I received so many sympathy cards which I'm sure were sent with good intentions but after a while I nicknamed them funeral cards. "Oh yeah! I got another funeral card in the mail today!" It was as if everyone had their minds made up i was going to die. My stepmother on the other hand, mailed me a funny card every week and I was so thankful for it! It was so refreshing when feeling like crap from chemo to get something thoughtful in the mail that would make me laugh!

KenneMaw KenneMaw

I would like to add one idea...if the person with cancer wants to talk about it, let them.   Don't offer advice, just listen.   When my grandfather in law was diagnosed, most of the family stuck their heads in the sand and refused to acknowledge the painful truth - he had 6 months to live.  They prayed for his soul, but no one except my husband (a former paramedic) and I let him talk about his care options, what 'might happen', weigh different options.   I am gateful my husband was there for him.

nonmember avatar MarikaM

Another one is if the person has children, offer to take them out on if it's even a trip to the movies. When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, it is very scary for a child to witness.

nonmember avatar Courtney

A great option for those close friends and family who are eager to do something but are uncertain how to get organized or what help would be most appreciated, is Lotsa Helping Hands. Lotsa offers free tools designed to make life easier for caregivers and volunteers. The hallmark of our platform is the caregiver-focused Help Calendar, which enables members to schedule and sign up for tasks that provide respite for the caregiver including meals for the family, rides to medical appointments, and visits.

nonmember avatar Angie

Another idea is for those that can afford to do so is to give cash or pay a bill of someone who is already strapped. Worry and stress are so bad for those with cancer and this could be a big help. Maybe organize a fund raiser or get together with other friends and take up a collection. Just a thought.

nonmember avatar bray

Thank you for this list.

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