My friend has cancer
Finding out a friend has cancer can flip your world upside down. Find out how you can be there for them during and after treatment.
- It’s not easy to hear that a friend has cancer and you’ll want to know how you can help
- You might find it helpful to learn a bit more about cancer, and the type your friend has
- Being yourself and talking about other things as well as cancer can be a big help
Coming to terms with your friend having cancer
You can never prepare yourself for that conversation when a friend sits you down and tells you they’ve got cancer. But even if you’re still trying to figure out how you’re supposed to deal with news like that, you can help your friend get through this.
Having familiar faces around can be really important during cancer treatment, because so much seems to be weird and changing.
And make sure you look after yourself too – this isn’t easy for anyone.
Cancer: the basics
There’s a lot of info on this site about different types of cancers and different treatments. But for starters, here are the basics:
- Cancer is a disease of the cells, so right now some of your friend’s cells aren’t acting normally
- The cause of most cancers is unknown, and nothing your friend has done has caused cancer
- Many cancers can be cured, and cancer treatments are getting better all the time
- Some of the treatments do have side effects – things like hair loss, feeling tired all the time, being sick and either losing or putting on weight
- Treatment can last between a few months and a few years
- You can’t catch cancer from other people.
Common worries young people with cancer face
Understanding the things your friend might be worried about can help you support them. Common concerns include:
Cancer treatments can change the way people look, and that can be really tough to deal with. So what can you do? If your friend has lost their hair, choose hats or wigs with them (or let them know bald is beautiful). Help them eat well and exercise if they’re able to. And maybe think about how you’ll respond if someone stares or asks questions. Remember that often people don’t mean to be rude – they’re just curious.
Weird as it might seem, if your friend isn’t able to go to school (or college or uni), they’re probably missing it. If you go to the same school, let them know what you’re working on. Help them with any homework they’re doing. And be there when they go back – those first few days can be tough.
If your friend works, they might be worried about falling behind or not making money. Encourage them to be honest with their employer.
Boyfriends and girlfriends
Your friend might think their chances of meeting someone have disappeared. So being there when they need to vent can really help. Pointing out what they’ve got going for them is a good idea too.
Being the odd one out
People might treat your friend differently, either by smothering them or keeping their distance. Your friend is still the same person, though, so they’ll probably appreciate it if you’re your normal self, too.
How you can help a friend with cancer
You probably want to help your friend but might not know how. That’s totally normal.
You can always ask them if there’s anything they need. Sometimes it’s helpful to suggest specific ways you could help, like sharing notes from lessons at school or helping with shopping and cooking. They might not always want or need the help and it can be tough to ask for help, so try to be patient if they sometimes get frustrated or annoyed.
Read more about how to support a friend with cancer: hear from young people we’ve supported about how their friends helped them during their diagnosis and treatment.
You can try and do a few of these simple things too:
Familiar faces can make a big difference, so try to visit your friend at home or in hospital, unless they’re having to isolate as part of their treatment. And when you’re there, just do the stuff you normally do together. Don’t visit if you’re ill or have an infection though, because your friend’s immune system might not be strong and they’re likely to catch an infection more easily than usual.
Ask them how they’re feeling
If you’re feeling up to it emotionally it can help to ask your friend how they’re feeling or ask if there’s anything in particular they would like to talk about. They might want to chat but not want to start the conversation.
Wash your hands
Your friend might be more likely to catch infections during cancer treatment, and washing your hands reduces the risk of infection spreading.
Invite them out
Your friend might say no quite a lot, but keep the invitations coming anyway. It’s a nice way to keep them included and they can decide when they feel up to coming to things.
Stay in touch
Give your friend a call. Drop them a text. They’re simple things, but it’s good to know people are thinking of you.
Talk about how you’re feeling
It’s hard to see someone close to you going through cancer, you might feel sad, confused, upset or scared. So, however it makes you feel, try not to keep it to yourself. Talk to your family, your friends, a teacher, a doctor or a counsellor. Or maybe write down what you’re going through.
What not to say to a friend with cancer
Don’t worry – there are always going to be times when you say the wrong thing. Everyone does, and it’s usually because you’re trying to help or sympathise.
It can be a good idea to let your friend know if you’re worried about saying something wrong, so they know you don’t mean to cause offence.
And it’s probably wise to steer clear of the following phrases, which can be unhelpful especially if your friend is having a tough time.
- ‘I know how you feel’
- ‘You’ll be fine’
- ‘Cheer up’
- ‘You’re so brave’
- ‘Don’t worry’
And try and remember that you don’t have to only talk about cancer. Ask your friend what they’re comfortable talking about, and be yourself. Your friend likes you how you are usually after all.
Beware of searching online
Finding out more about cancer can be a really good idea. It means you know more about what to expect and about what your friend is going through.
But before you open your phone and search online, remember to click carefully. There’s a lot of good information out there, but there are also plenty of scare stories and it’s not always easy to know where to go for the information that will be helpful.
Doctors will be happy to recommend sites you can trust. We’ve included useful links throughout our site too and you can find out more about how we produce our information here. Keep an eye out for the green and blue PIF Tick symbol on other sites – you can see it at the bottom of this page. This shows that the organisation has been accredited with producing trustworthy information. You can find a list of other PIF Tick accredited charities and organisations on the PIF website.
And remember that everyone’s cancer is different – so the best way to find out what’s really going on is to speak to your friend.
When friendships change
Sometimes friendships change, it’s not something that only happens when someone has cancer, it happens all the time.
While cancer can sometimes bring people closer, it can make sometimes mean people drift apart too. People might struggle to communicate like they used to, or they have other things on their mind. This doesn’t mean you have to take a step back from your friendship but it’s something to be aware of.
It can be sad and difficult if you feel like your friendship is changing, but it’s a normal part of life too. So if this happens to you and your friend, try to remember that it’s nobody’s fault and it might not be forever.
Who to talk to
It’s always good to talk to someone and share your thoughts and feelings. If you have someone in your family or a friend that you trust, you could talk to them about any worries that you might have.
Your friend’s support staff in the hospital might also be happy to talk to you and tell you about other support organisations near you.