Woman showing support for her friend with cancer

5 compassionate ways to support a friend with cancer


There’s no question it’s tough to hear the news that one of your friends has been diagnosed cancer. Once the initial shock has worn off, many of us have a gut reaction to immediately offer our help and support. However, there are certain “dos” and “don’ts” when it comes to helping cancer patients. In this article, we’ll share five compassionate ways to support a friend with cancer.

  1. Check with them first
  2. Include them
  3. Treat them the same
  4. Offer specific ways to help
  5. Talk about other things

Before you reach out to your friend, make sure you’ve taken time to process your own feelings first. Do some research and learn about their diagnosis. Try to think about things from your friend’s perspective. Understanding their situation and coming to terms with your own emotions will help make things more comfortable for both of you.

Take care of yourself first with this Caregiver Resource Guide from the American Cancer Society.


Ask permission. Those two words are really important when it comes to showing your support for a friend with cancer. If you’re thinking about paying them a visit, send a quick text or email to make sure they’re up for it. Have a favor in mind that might help them out? Check with them before you do it to make sure it’s okay.

The same goes for asking questions about their cancer. Take your cues from them on whether they’re open to talking about it. Some cancer patients find it helpful to talk about their diagnosis, while others are uncomfortable with it. If you think they won’t mind, try saying “I care about you and want to know more about how you’re feeling. Is it okay if I ask you some questions?”

It’s also important to ask their permission before offering any advice. Unsolicited advice can be frustrating for cancer patients. However, if you have advice based on your own experiences or research, your friend may appreciate it. Just be sure to check with them first and make sure they want to hear it.


It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your friend won’t be up for socializing since they have cancer. The truth is, every cancer patient is different. Some may find it therapeutic to get out and spend time with friends. Others may prefer to stay home and relax. Their desire to take part in activities may also depend on where they are in their treatment and how much energy they have at the time.

The key is to make sure you’re including your friend as you normally would when planning social activities. Let them be the one to determine whether or not they’re up for it.

When you invite them to an event, make sure to let them know it’s okay if they say “no.” Also, remember to be understanding and don’t take it personally if your friend declines the invitation.


When a friend is diagnosed with cancer, it can create an uncomfortable situation. You may not be sure what to say or how to act around them. For most cancer patients, normalcy is welcome, so treating them the same way you always have is a great way to show support for a friend with cancer.

Make sure you’re not speaking to them in a patronizing tone, even if unintended. The American Cancer Society offers a good example of this. Think about when someone knows you’re sick and they ask, “How are you doing today?” However, by their tone you can tell they really mean, “How sick are you feeling today?”

You should also avoid distancing yourself from your friend. Since we’re not always sure what to say or do, some people tend to shy away from interacting with the cancer patient. It’s important not to just stop calling them or talking to them because of your own fear. Instead, approach them with honesty and tell them you’re just not sure what to say or do.

When you do talk your friend, be careful with your words. The American Society of Clinical Oncology provides a helpful list of “Dos” and “Don’ts” when speaking to a person with cancer.

Do say:

  • I’m sorry this has happened to you.
  • If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen.
  • What are you thinking of doing and how can I help?
  • I care about you.
  • I’m thinking about you.

Don’t say:

  • I know just how you feel.
  • I know just what you should do.
  • I know someone who had the exact same diagnosis.
  • I’m sure you’ll be fine.
  • Don’t worry.
  • How long do you have?


When trying to show support for a friend with cancer, it’s our natural instinct to want to help. However, most people with cancer aren’t going to explicitly ask for help or even tell you what they might need help with.

That’s why it’s best to offer specific ways you’d like to help. It’s important to ask your friend if they’d like help first and make sure they know it’s okay to decline the offer. If they accept the help, be sure to follow through on your promise.

Since your friend may find it hard to ask for help, here’s a list of some ideas:

  • Do their grocery shopping
  • Pick up their prescriptions
  • Send a meal or arrange a meal schedule
  • Run errands
  • Invite them to go for a walk
  • Drive them to treatment
  • Help with chores around the house
  • Invite them out to lunch
  • Help with childcare or arrange a playdate
  • Help them research their cancer and treatment options


Don’t feel like every conversation with your friend has to be about cancer. It goes back to the idea that normalcy can be very beneficial for someone living with cancer. While things related to the cancer consume much of their life, having a conversation that has absolutely nothing to do with it can really help lift their spirits.

Give your friend a call (but text or email first to make sure they’re up for a chat) and just bring up whatever topics you’d normally chat about if cancer wasn’t in the equation. If it’s a co-worker, “shop talk” or just some good old “water cooler talk” can help take their mind off cancer for a while.

The idea of talking about other topics is to help provide some balance in their life. It’s not necessarily meant to distract them from cancer, but rather to keep them engaged in their normal interests and take a mental break from some of the more serious conversations.