Advice for supporting a friend that is going through cancer

Hearing that a friend or family member has been diagnosed with cancer is scary. There is no ‘normal’ way to react. It’s hard to know which questions you can ask, how you should behave, and what being there for them really looks like. Naturally, you want to show up for them in a way that is helpful and supportive, without coming on too strong or finding yourself walking on eggshells when around them.

War on Cancer Founders, Sebastian Hermelin and Fabian Bolin

Without a post-diagnosis guidebook available to tell us what to do, many people feel lost, and some find it easier to drift away unsure of how to communicate with that person.

Fabian Bolin and Sebastian Hermelin are two people who understand this better than many. Fabian, a cancer survivor, and Sebastian, Fabian’s childhood friend, refused to let Fabian’s acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) diagnosis become the focus of their relationship, even when Sebastian wasn’t sure what to do or how to be there for his friend.

Drawing from their own experiences, Fabian and Sebastian share their thoughts on how to maintain a sense of normality, whilst still offering support in post-diagnosis friendships.

Rewire your thoughts 

It’s natural to go into a state of mental shock after hearing your friend’s diagnosis. Instead of focusing on the diagnosis or going into problem-solving mode, remind yourself to see your friend as an individual who is likely still in shock, too. Ask questions about how you can help them, instead of trying to problem-solve or hyper-focus on the more challenging aspects of their diagnosis.

Actively listen to what your friend needs, and if they don’t know, take the initiative to read between the lines and offer the best support you can give as a friend. Avoid getting overly-personal, invasive or too focused on cancer: it’s up to your friend to drive the conversation and set limits, rather than you.

When asking questions, take some time to write down a few thoughts or questions and ask to speak about them when your friend feels comfortable.

If you’re not sure where to start, questions like the following can help to get you started:

  • How can I be there for you, mentally and physically?
  • Would it be helpful if I cook meals that we enjoy together once or twice a week?
  • Would you like to start a Netflix series, boardgame or a jigsaw puzzle we can enjoy together when you’re feeling unwell?

These types of helpful, supportive questions will always be welcome. It’s more than likely your friend is craving normalcy. And, being sure to put your friend in front of mind, rather than their cancer, is sure to help them feel a little more balanced.

Fabian Bolin, CEO and co-founder, War on Cancer
Fabian Bolin, CEO and co-founder, War on Cancer

Know what to expect

Especially within the age of social media, it’s likely that your friend is going to be overwhelmed with well-wishes in the weeks after sharing details of their diagnosis with others. While friends and family might think they’re being helpful by checking in, it can often become an exhausting experience for your friend. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them about their treatment and progress, but try to be aware of the fact that you won’t be the only one asking these questions, and allow the topic to come up in daily conversations on their terms.

By letting them lead these conversations while consciously making the effort to maintain the relationship you had beforehand, you’re likely offering them exactly the support they need. Often, being the person who focuses 10% on the cancer part of your friend’s life and 90% on bringing light humour and a sense of normality to a traumatic situation, can have a profoundly positive effect on your friendship and their circumstances.

Remember: they are still the person you knew pre-diagnosis, so honour what you originally had in common – it’s truly one of the best kinds of support you can give. 

By talking about your fears, thoughts and concerns together, and finding moments to laugh about the tough turn life has taken, you’ll strengthen your friendship while reminding each other that you’re in this together.

Be understanding and inclusive

Whether it’s a low mood, rollercoastering energy levels, or a desire to spend a little more time alone, battling cancer brings side effects that aren’t always expected or spoken about. Life is likely to be unpredictable throughout treatment and for a short time after, so try to be as conscientious as possible, especially as losing pre-existing friendships is often a reality for those going through cancer.

Luckily, this is something that can be easily avoided simply by including your friend in everything – without expecting them or pressuring them to show up. Giving them the option to join for a short while, or to say “no thank you”, rather than excluding them outright is a nice way to show support, while also helping to maintain a sense of normalcy and inclusivity. Being flexible and understanding of cancelled plans or low moments is really important and will go a long way in terms of showing your friend you value their well-being.

Respect their boundaries 

Showing that you care is important, but be mindful of how you show your affection. Constantly sending gifts, sharing unsolicited cancer-related research or articles, or generally overcompensating for a situation outside of your control are not going to be helpful tactics that show how much you care.

While information and advice might be shared with the best intentions, you can’t be sure that they are aligned with the treatment plan that your friend and their medical team are utilising. You might have good intentions, but these tactics will likely make your friend feel alienated, pitied, or reminded of a difficult situation.

Instead, allow them to outline what they are and are not comfortable addressing, receiving or discussing throughout their treatment, to ensure they feel comfortable, loved and respected.

Sebastian Hermelin, co-founder, War on Cancer
Sebastian Hermelin, co-founder, War on Cancer

You’re in this together 

When someone close to you is going through cancer treatment, it’s going to be tough for both of you in very different ways. By talking about your fears, thoughts and concerns together, and finding moments to laugh about the tough turn life has taken, you’ll strengthen your friendship while reminding each other that you’re in this together.

A good way to try and achieve this is by connecting with your fun and playful side. Making jokes, watching comedies and laughing with your friend is going to help more than you can imagine. Staying positive and finding whatever joy you can in life, especially when cancer has become a part of it, is very important. Most friendships are built on a shared sense of humour, and it’s important that this is embraced, even in the toughest of times.

Fabian Bolin and Sebastian Hermelin are co-founders of War On Cancer, the social network for everyone affected by cancer and co-hosts of the War On Cancer podcast.

Supporting a friend during a difficult time is not easy, and it is important that you look after yourself, too. Self-care is vital in keeping yourself well and you can’t support someone else if you’re running on empty.

And know that it’s OK to need to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Understanding and coming to terms with a diagnosis takes time. If you need to speak to someone, Counselling Directory lists over 14,000 professionals working online across the UK. Simply browse profiles until you find the person who is right for you.

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Written by Ellen Lees
Head of Content.
Written by Ellen Lees
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