What to Do When You Learn Someone Has Cancer

When you learn that a friend or family member has a cancer diagnosis, what do you do? This can be a difficult experience, and it's hard to know how to act. Sometimes it's even more important to be aware of what NOT to do. Having been on the receiving end of some wonderful responses, and some really awful ones, when I told people about my cancer diagnosis, here are some suggestions:

First and foremost, please do not engage in an over-the-top grief-stricken response that indicates that you believe the speaker is about to die momentarily (e.g.,"OH MY GOD, NOOOO….). You can allow yourself to freak out later in private, but you owe it to your friend or loved one to keep it together at that moment. A newly-diagnosed person doesn't want abject pity and shouldn't have to reassure YOU or give YOU emotional support.

Please be careful about making glib comparisons to other people you have known who were in the same situation, especially if the other person didn't do well ("One of the women in my office got breast cancer last year, the same stage as you – she died."). I shouldn't have to explain why this is not helpful.

On the other hand, even if you know of other people with a similar diagnosis who had a positive outcome, and you think it would be reassuring to your loved one to hear about their experience, you run the risk of seeming to downplay the seriousness of what your loved one is facing ("Ellen had a lumpectomy and chemo, never missed a day of work, and went hiking in the Himalayas right after she finished treatment – I'm sure you'll be just fine!").

Please do not ask if there is anything you can do to help unless you are prepared to actually do something helpful. Please do think of practical ways in which you can provide support or assistance. For example, you might offer to help with household chores or childcare, or transportation and/or accompaniment to doctor or treatment appointments. Be specific about your offer, so that your loved one knows you mean it – give dates/times when you can provide help.

Finally, whatever the crisis that your loved one is facing, they are almost sure to welcome having someone to go to the movies/theater/museum with, to have lunch/dinner/dessert/drinks with, or otherwise help them have a little fun, provide a bit of a distraction, and reassure them that they are more than just a cancer patient.


Jo Holz

Jo is a breast cancer survivor and a SHARE volunteer.