How to support a friend with cancer: young people's tips

Young people who’ve been through cancer share their top tips on how to support your friend during their treatment and beyond.

“Stay in touch and carry on as if things were normal.”

When I had cancer, I felt like as a person I hadn’t changed at all – other than there was a ball in my head that I now knew about.

But my life changed a lot during treatment.

Cancer is a huge deal and you can feel like it’s all people think of you, and the cause of all your problems.

It’s hard for your friends too, and to be honest, I don’t know exactly what I would say or do if I was on the other side of it.

But probably the best thing you can do is to try to carry on as if things are normal.

Don’t stop inviting your friend out to things – even if they can’t come, it’s nice to get an invite and feel involved.

And try to stay in touch and let them know you care. Cancer is overwhelming and your friend might not even be able to reply, but your message will be appreciated.

From Charlie, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour aged 17.

“Family are important, but friends are a completely different part of your life – the stuff you can talk about is essential to your wellbeing.”

When I was being treated, people didn’t really know what to talk about with me. They wished me happy birthday or a merry Christmas, but there weren’t really any normal conversations.

I think asking how someone is feeling, creating conversations, trying to get a friend with cancer to open up is massive for their mental health.

If people are going through treatment or having hospital stays after surgery, communication is key. Of course, family are important but friends are a completely different part of your life. The stuff you can talk about with friends is essential to your wellbeing and sanity, giving a sense of normality to what you’re going through.

Friends can bring a calmness too, allowing you to switch off from everything else and just have a general conversation. That’s when friends can help out hugely.

From Jake, who was 19 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

“The person you see in that hospital bed is the same person.”

The person you see in that hospital bed is the same person you have spent years of your life with.

You don’t need to treat them any differently.

You are fundamental to their escape from ‘cancer duties’.

Go in, have a laugh, take some treats and be friends.

Bring normality back to a world that is currently feeling more abnormal than ever.

From Rian, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia aged 14, and then relapsed at 15 before having a stem cell transplant at 16.

“They will need your support after the treatment ends too.”

Please don’t let cancer ruin your friendships. Your friend is going through enough and they need your support.

Offer to go round to their house or go out for a coffee with them and be there if they need to talk. Have some compassion and try not to tell people there’s worse illnesses out there. You will never be able to understand what they are going through unless you’ve had cancer yourself, but you can listen to their worries and offer support.

They will need your support after the treatment ends too. A lot of people think that once cancer treatment finishes there’s this big celebration and the person can move on, but sometimes people are so focused on the treatment that it actually hits them the most once it’s over. They may have bad days where they feel down or they may feel fatigued, so please bear with them.

From Alisha, who was 21 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

“Don’t make comments about how their appearance has changed.”

Send your friend a message to see how they are doing – that always means a lot as it shows you are thinking of them.

Don’t make comments about how their appearance has changed, like hair loss or weight gain. They don’t need the reminder.

When you are unwell you want to be able to do normal things, but you might be too ill. I had one friend who came round to watch TV with me while I just slept, and that was so nice at the time.

From Cerys, who was 13 when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma.

“If you’re feeling awkward, get some help and educate yourself.”

If you’re trying to be a good friend to someone with cancer, my advice is:

Don’t be an idiot. Your friend is feeling totally overwhelmed and is counting on you – stick by them.

If you’re feeling awkward about the situation, get some help – go online and educate yourself and ask your friend what you could do that would help them.

Don’t treat them like a baby. They are ill but they are still the same person – they don’t want to be constantly asked if they are OK. Take their mind off things by talking about the time you got in trouble at school, had a fun day, anything else!

And if you’re the person with cancer, tell your friend how they can help you and that you need them around – they might not know.

From Hiral, who was 21 when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

“Don’t dismiss it and remember everyone is different.”

If your friend is going through cancer, don’t dismiss it and make sure they know you are there. Everyone is different, so I would ask if they wanted to talk about it, or if they want to talk about anything else as a distraction.

Sometimes when I was in hospital, I just wanted to hear about what was going on outside and talk about things that we could look forward to.

From Gigi, who was 16 when she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome.

“It’s OK to say that you don’t know what to say.”

When you are in hospital, you think that you’re going to be forgotten. So my advice is to just be there for them, listen to them, and it’s OK to say that you don’t know what to say because we understand that.

Instead of saying ‘if I can do anything to help let me know’, instead think about specific things they might need like walking their dog, a care package of things to do in hospital, or picking something up from the shops for them. Small acts of kindness mean a lot.

From Sophie, 23, who had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

“Don’t be afraid to ask your friend questions.”

If your friend needs your support, just be there to listen. It really helps to have someone you can chat to.

I thought that some friends would be there for me, but they weren’t and that was hard.

I think some people don’t know how to deal with it or how to talk to me normally.

I would encourage people to ask their friend questions. Most people were scared to ask questions, but I was happy for them to ask questions so they could understand it more. I wouldn’t have wanted people to go away and Google it and scare themselves. Just make sure you think about the questions before hand and phrase them in a sensitive way.

From Jordan, 23, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.

“Don’t think you have to solve all their problems for them”

Choose your words carefully. It must be hard for people to know what the right thing to say is - everyone is trying their best. I hated when people said: ‘Be positive’ or ‘Keep your chin up’. Sometimes I’m just trying to function as a human being and look after a baby and it’s like they are putting more expectations on you. It also implies that you are being negative, when you are trying your hardest in a bad situation.

Be mindful of the emojis. I got so many heart emojis and so many arm emojis to represent being strong. People are trying to show their love, but I got sick of those emojis.

Don’t comment on people’s appearance. When my friends say: ‘Your hair looks nice’ I think: ‘No it doesn’t, that’s an absolute lie’. They don’t know what it’s like to suffer with feeling self-conscious about a part of your appearance.

Chat about yourselves. Some people thought that they couldn’t chat about themselves. . I wanted people to know they could still come to me. It made me feel normal. I loved voice notes as I could replay them when I was bored. They were just general ones like: ‘I hope you are doing ok. If not, that’s ok too’ then they’d spend a few minutes updating me on their lives.

Don’t think you have to solve all of their problems for them. They don’t expect that. They just want you to acknowledge that things are rubbish for them.

From Katie, 25, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.

“Avoid focusing on them ‘moving on’ from cancer.”

Avoid focusing on ‘moving on’ from cancer. Some of my friends said: ‘I bet you can’t wait to move on and close the door on this chapter. But the cancer will always be part of me, I will never forget it. When I heard people say that, it put a barrier up to who I felt I could talk to about it all.

Don’t comment on people’s appearance. Some people may like it, but I really didn’t! So many people say: ‘Your hair suits you short’ and I think: ‘Please remember, this wasn’t a choice’. They are sitting there with their amazing hair and it doesn’t feel like a compliment.

Support them after treatment too. I think this is my most important top tip. Some people were super supportive during treatment and I am sad to say have fallen off the radar now that it’s finished. It is now that you need people to be there more than ever.

Understand gaps in conversation. Don’t be offended. We have a lot going on, so sometimes we will not reply, or we may reply less enthusiastically. Just let them have those days and let them ride it out. It’s really nice when friends message you and say something like: ‘I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking about you. I don’t expect a reply, but I’m here’.

Treat people like themselves. Some of my friends just treated me normally, and that’s what I needed.

Let them know you are thinking of them. One of my friends was a total rockstar and she sent me these little packages every two weeks when I had my chemo. It was lovely that she remembered when it was and timed things.

I wouldn’t recommend contacting friends you have lost touch with. If you aren’t close with someone, don’t pop up when they have a cancer diagnosis. It’s really difficult to navigate during the hardest time of your life. Some people who popped up at the start weren’t even there at the end and that is really challenging to accept and comprehend.

Be there to listen – not solve problems. Just let them moan. It’s nice to be heard.

Distraction is always welcome. Sometimes I want to talk about anything other than cancer. Cancer isn’t who I am, there’s so much more to me than that.

From Ellie, 24, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.