10 Tips for Supporting a Friend with Cancer

By Valerie Banner,

Monday, October 13, 2014

Three friends

Memorial Sloan Kettering social workers Meredith Cammarata and Liz Blackler give advice to anyone who wants to offer support to someone they know with cancer.

After learning that a friend, colleague, or neighbor has cancer, you may wonder what you should do. You might want to help in some way or think about stopping by for a visit or sending a gift. Or maybe you simply feel at a loss for what to do or what to say.

We talked to Memorial Sloan Kettering social workers Meredith Cammarata and Liz Blackler to get their best tips on how to support a friend with cancer. Here’s what we learned.

Ask before you visit.

This is true whether you’re visiting someone at home or in the hospital. “Being sick is unpredictable,” says Cammarata. “Give your friend permission to say no to a visit, and be flexible and understanding that someone who is sick may call and cancel at the last minute.” If you reach out but your friend doesn’t return your phone call or email, don’t take it personally.

If you do visit, Blackler recommends making sure you don’t overstay your welcome — you don’t want your friend to feel obligated to entertain you. If you’re not sure how long to stay, she says, just ask: “I can stay longer. Or do you want me to leave and come back another time?”

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Set up a phone team.

Many people with cancer find that keeping friends and family updated on their latest status can be taxing at times. Cammarata recommends setting up a phone team, so that only one person in your circle of friends reaches out and then provides updates to the rest of the group. This person can also let everyone else know if the mutual friend wants more phone calls or would prefer time to be alone.

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Offer to help with daily tasks.

It may be difficult for your friend to ask for help, but Cammarata and Blackler say that some of the most beneficial things you can do are to offer to assist with everyday errands, like grocery shopping, babysitting, picking the kids up from school, or doing laundry. Cammarata suggests making a list of tasks you’re willing to do and asking your friend where you can help.

If you’re going out to the store for your own family, give your friend a call and see if there’s anything else you can pick up, Blackler says.

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“The most meaningful and helpful things are little…like listening,” notes Cammarata. If you’re not sure how to start the conversation, it’s fine to say that too.

“It’s OK to say you’re feeling awkward,” says Blackler. “It’s OK to say, ‘This is so hard. I don’t know what to say.’” It’s a way to acknowledge the situation rather than pretend it’s not happening.

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Take your cues from your friend.

Similarly, look to your friend for cues on what to discuss. “Sometimes patients express frustration because their friends don’t want to talk about the cancer. People get frustrated because it’s a big part of their life,” Blackler says. However, others find that talking about something other than cancer and treatment is a nice reprieve.

If you’re not sure, Blackler suggests saying something like, “Do you want to talk about it? If so, I’m here. If you don’t, let’s get lunch and talk about the gossip in the neighborhood.”

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Remember that everyone’s illness is different.

Even if the type of cancer your friend has is the same as that of someone else you know, keep in mind that everyone’s symptoms and disease are unique. While you may want to reach into your own life to find a common link, Cammarata recommends avoiding such comparisons.

“Don’t say, ‘My friend was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, too, and they’re doing great,’” she says. It’s not helpful to compare illnesses.

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Reconsider gifts of food.

Perhaps you’ve thought about baking a casserole, soup, or another meal. But keep in mind that your friend may need to stick to a special diet during treatment, have symptoms like nausea and vomiting, or be more vulnerable to infections, says Cammarata. Depending on the situation, it may be better to stay away from giving food.

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Give thoughtful gifts.

Giving a gift can be tricky for several reasons. Flowers may not be appropriate for someone whose immune system is weak. Gifts with a strong perfume or smell can be overwhelming for someone with cancer. But books, magazines, movies, or puzzles may be welcome distractions during chemotherapy.

Blackler recalls a patient who received a gift certificate for a home cleaning service. Redeeming that gift certificate helped pick up the slack at home and wasn’t as uncomfortable as having a friend come in to clean, she says.

Cammarata remembers one particularly thoughtful gift given by a group of friends. Each person got a page and filled it with attributes that they admired about the patient, pictures, inspirational quotes, and funny memories. “I thought that was such a sweet idea,” she says.

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Support caregivers and other family members too.

“People are so focused on the patients and how they’re doing that they forget to ask caregivers how they’re doing,” Blackler says. “Caregivers are stressed out.” They’re trying to juggle their existing roles and take over new responsibilities that the person who’s sick used to do.

You can offer to help by babysitting the kids for a night or driving them to soccer practice. Or perhaps helping out just means sitting in the hospital room while the caregiver steps out for a cup of coffee.

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Continue to offer support after the initial diagnosis.

“It’s not always at the beginning of the illness that patients need support. They need support along the entire continuum,” says Cammarata. Offers of help often “flood in at the beginning of the diagnosis and then it begins to trickle,” she adds. “It’s important to remember that the help is not just needed when they’re first diagnosed or in the hospital.”

If you’re part of a church group or a similar organization, your group might want to consider taking turns helping out so that the support is spread out. Blackler also advises to offer to help more than once — but not too frequently. Ask again in a week or two.

Most importantly, keep the person in mind throughout it all. Think about his or her personality and comfort level, likes and dislikes, and needs.

“It’s about helping without overwhelming,” Blackler says. “People can do really amazing things that touch the lives of patients.”

Are you living with cancer, a survivor, or a caregiver? What advice do you wish had been shared with your community of friends during your experience? What was the most helpful thing that someone did for you or a loved one during cancer treatment? Share with us in the comments section below.

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I have a group of friends who for the past two years have come over befor Christmas and put up my decorations, tree and all and they come back in January and take them down. Christmas is important to me and I love the decorations but I haven't felt like doing it for a long time. I always feel so good after they leave. Not only does my house look beautiful, but I feel loved by all these friends and they are so important to me.

I am a cancer survivor. From my view point I can say your list is spit on. Friends just do not know what to do. Elephant In the room, hmmmmm, maybe I can pretend it's not there, sort of reaction, even thought they truly do want to help.

On the phone or a face to face visit admitting to me that they did not know what to say would have been great, then we could laugh and carry on then talk. Or just simply asking me did I want to talk about it. Yes I did want to, very much but I thought they would regret coming over or calling if I started there.

The night times were especially hard for me. It would have been nice to have a sleep over or if not that, at least some visits until bed time. I wanted to not be alone in the evening, first year especially. During radiation I was so full of fear and it's hard to admit you are afraid.

Re help with daily tasks - yes. Everyone's recovery time is different and again it's hard to ask for help but creating a pretty dish or gift bag with tasks on nice pieces of paper. Friends or family wanting to help can draw a paper.

The comments about bringing food - again spot on. I wasn't dealing with food sensitivities just to much food.

Lastly, avoid comparison stories. I wanted people to listen to me, I didn't want to hear about there aunt Gertrude etc.

Thank you. I hope the list helps many others. Survivors AND support people/care givers.

Dear Joann, we are happy to know that this article "spoke" to you and that found our suggestions helpful. Thanks for your comments!

Social media plays an important role in my journey with cancer. My son created a blog on Facebook when I first began my treatment and I can tell you it has been the best thing for me. Many of my friends and family don't live near by. I am able to post my current treatment, my feelings, etc. and share not only with my friends but also with all the people important to my children. I can keep everyone in the loop without having to make a lot of calls. What is incredible is the number of messages, likes and shares that are posted after each of my entries. This is what keeps me going. On those bad days when I can't leave the house, I have FB and all the messages that help me make it through those days. Currently, there are over a hundred people following my journey. I truly feel like I'm not doing this alone. I have my supporting cast seeing me through. I am blessed beyond measure.

I agree with the social media comment. It's 2014, not 1994. There are various websites that host free patient blogs (e.g., carepages.com), which allow a patient and/or family members to keep family and friends informed, and allow others to post public or private messages. The blog has the benefit of allowing everyone to receive the same information at the same time (no hurt feelings about being the last to know) in exactly the same words (no changes in the message as it's passed along).

The advice about offering to help is tricky, and sometimes offers of assistance are received poorly, because the patient views them as a burden: i.e., not only do I have cancer, but now I have to find something for you to do so that you feel better about yourself as a friend. ("Really, you must tell me something I can do for you or I'd never forgive myself for not helping you.") This one depends on the patient and the patient's specific needs. The best advice is to remind friends that it's not about them, it's not about what a good friend they are or aren't, it's about the patient and what the patient needs. Be sensitive to that.

I'm a cancer survivor and I can't tell you enough times don't tell the person you are trying to support that they look good when they are feeling like hell and they know they don't look good at all. Just listen and keep them warm.

My name is Inga & I am in need of help with a family friend in crisis.

With odds seemingly set against her, I have faith in the kindness & legacy of your support organization.

Her name is Alina, 55 yrs old, immigrated from Russia in 1995.

On Jan 2014, Alina was diagnosed with stage 3 Uteran Cancer.

With the help of family pushing thru red tape of her uncertain immigration status, she has since undergone radiology and chemo at Northshore Hospital in Long Island.

By rallying family & friends to pay the $600/month rent of her lower east side 5 x 5 room, we have moved her back in this week.

She is currently frail, scared, friendless & penniless.

She has a warm kind & fighting spirit, social security number & the willingness to work.

I advised & am helping her find a non-medical home care caregiver position where her soft spoken warm nature would best suit spirit a lonely elderly person in need of human companionship.

With whom & when & where can I discuss the immediate steps necessary to help Alina survive & thrive.

Thank you in advance for your assistance & support.
Inga D'Angelo

Inga, thank you for reaching out. First of all, your friend might try these resources for help with finances:

There is some information at this link, including names of national organizations:


In addition, you may be interested in checking out a few financial assistance resources for people with cancer who need help paying for things like housing, utilities, food, transportation to medical treatment, home health care, medical devices, and pharmaceutical agents.

One good one is the Patient Advocate Foundation, which allows you to do a focused search for organizations that meet your needs:


Here is another link that provides a listing of organizations that offer financial aid for health-related needs:


If you are interested in learning about caregiver jobs for your friend, you might try this link:


We hope this information is helpful.

We are still coming to grips with a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Within days, we were flooded will unsolicited advice, "warnings" about chemo and radiation, family who show up unannounced and expect to be entertained, family we haven't heard from in years tell us a date they are flying out to visit. This behavior has been quite a shock.
During the most chaotic, exhausting, demanding and not to mention, sickest time in your life, compassion and kindness is needed. Think of the newly diagnosed person first. Not yourself.

I have a friend with stage 4 cancer - it's in the bones, in the liver. She is still quite active, in pain but manages it. I see her often, at least every 10 days, and text more often. I am confused by her illness, as one minute she says she can hardly walk, can't go barefoot, then she is off on a 5 day holiday up the coast. Then her markers are up up up ('markers', a term I think i understand) and she's on 3rd round of oral chemo...She says she needs patience from those of us who have "stuck around"..."you know who you are" she says in a group email. But do I know?
I have no idea if I do the right thing by her. She never tells me directly. I feel so very wrong wanting some sign, some acknowledgement that I do enough (I don't do 'jobs' for her, like cook or clean...she has grown children living with her, she can afford a cleaner, her husband works from home)...I just feel so weirdly alone in supporting her and not getting any feedback about it, and then feel terrible for wanting any.
I can find plenty on the internet about what to do to help a friend with cancer, but nothing about how to deal with them as people, how to deal with MY feelings....It's as if we are not meant to have any....

Dear Melanie, we are sorry to hear about your friend's diagnosis. We forwarded your question to MSK social worker Liz Blackler (who is quoted in the blog post) and she responded:

"This is a great example of how illness affects not just patients but also their families, loves ones and close friends. It might be helpful for this person to connect with other caregivers who are struggling with similar feelings. Many hospitals/organizations/regions offer caregiver support groups that address the issues highlighted here. This is a normal reaction. Many caregivers feel helpless watching someone they care about face illness. Although this person may not be getting verbal acknowledgement for their support, I would suggest that she is in fact doing a lot to stay connected with her friend."

We hope this is helpful, and wish you all our best.

I would add that asking "how are you"" is often A very irritating question. For one, cancer treatment is a roller coaster and most of the time I feel terrible but don't want to always complain but don't want to lie either. I just think it's a terribly inappropriate question for someone going through this disease. Fine for someone recovering from surgery or a procedure but this disease is on-going and I really don't like having to answer this question!

Is it ok to ask what can I do? What do I do if they say nothing? What if they are in a different state? What kind of support can I give them? Is it ok to ask what kind of chemo treatment they're being given? I have so many questions. I don't know what to do.

Dear Roe, we are sorry to hear about your friend's diagnosis. It's almost always a good idea to communicate with your friend to let him or her know you are available to listen. If your friend wants to talk or email with you to share his or her feelings and is open to answering questions about their diagnosis or treatment, then ask them about it. If they seem like they'd rather talk about other things, then do that. Just follow your friend's lead. Knowing that you are just a phone call or email away can be comforting for your friend and is a good way to let them know you care.

We wish your friend well and appreciate you reaching out to us.

is how are you feeling an okay question? what ways can i interact and get them to be honest with me so they dont feel alone and have someone to talk to

Dear K., we forwarded your inquiry to one of our social workers, Meredith Cammarata, and she responded:

"It is important for your friend to know that you are there to support them and you are someone they can talk to about anything they are feeling. However, it is also important to recognize that your friend might want to talk to you about other things in life, unrelated to their cancer diagnosis and that is okay too."

Thank you for reaching out to us.

My friend has stage 4 breast cancer. It has spread to her brain. I can see her treatment is more aggressive than those in the past. It has been very difficult to see her go thru it. The affects she has now is confusion, memory loss, feeling out of control. I don't know how to deal with my friend that can't remember my name or the conversation we just had five minutes ago. It's heartbreaking and I feel more and more helpless. What ways can I be more of help? This is more difficult than I ever imagined it would be.

Dear Jackie, we are sorry to hear about your friend's diagnosis. We sent your inquiry to one of our social workers and she responded:
"It can be very difficult and heartbreaking to watch a loved one suffer from a serious illness, such as stage IV breast cancer. It is very normal to feel helpless at times. Know that you are being a supportive friend by just being available to support her when she needs it. Sometimes being there to bare witness to suffering is the most powerful way to support a loved one in need. It might be helpful to reach out to her family, and or other caregivers in her life to see if there is anything you can do to help them."

If this person is being cared for at Memorial Sloan Kettering, please know that we offer support groups for our patients' caregivers every month. To learn more about our caregiver program and support groups, go to https://www.mskcc.org/experience/caregivers-support.

Thank you for reaching out to us.

My friend of many years phoned me to say she was diagnosed with Sage 4 cancer,I made it known to her how much I care for her,I would now and then send her a message,or call she would respond and some times called me.but for the last month she does nt respond to my call or messages,I have no relationship with her husband and childern, but thy know about me, can I call them to ask about their mother how she is doing, or will it upset her she was diagnosed 6 months ago. Thanks

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