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 the hell 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.
Understanding the things your friend might be worried about can help you support them. Common concerns include:
- Looking different. 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.
- Education. 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.
- Work. If your friend works, they might be worried about falling behind or not making money. Encourage them to be honest with their employer – and to read our section on going back to work.
- 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. And you could always find someone to set them up with (as long as they’re happy with that)…
- 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 can you help?
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 (although it can be tough to ask for help, so try to be patient if they sometimes get annoyed).
And you can try and do a few of these simple things too:
- Visit. Familiar faces can make a big difference, so try to visit your friend at home or in hospital. And when you’re there, just do the stuff you normally do together. (Don’t visit if you’re sick or have an infection though.)
- Invite them out. Your friend might say no quite a lot, but keep the invitations coming anyway. They’ll make it when they can.
- Stay in touch. Give your friend a call. Say hello on WhatsApp or Facebook. Drop them a text. They’re simple things, but it’s good to know people are thinking of you.
- 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.
- Talk about how you’re feeling. It’s hard to see someone close to you going through cancer. 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.
- Invite an expert to your school. We run cancer support sessions in schools, when a cancer expert visits to discuss everything from types of cancer to bullying. It’s important to check if your friend is happy for you to organise one of these sessions, but it can be a useful way to help people understand more about cancer.
What not to say
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 taken the wrong way – 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, after all.
Beware of Google!
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 hit Google, remember to click carefully. There’s a lot of good information out there, but there are also plenty of scare stories – and it’s easy to get sucked into the scare stories and freak yourself out.
Doctors will be happy to recommend sites you can trust. We’ve included useful links throughout this site too. 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.
If you drift apart
Sometimes friendships change. You’ll already know that – it’s not like it only happens when someone has cancer.
So while cancer can sometimes bring people closer, it can make people drift apart too. Sometimes people struggle to communicate like they used to, or they start to find different things important.
It can be sad, but it’s a normal part of life too. So if it happens to you, try to remember that it’s nobody’s fault.
Who to talk to
Our family support network can put you in touch with other people who know what it’s like be friends with a young person who has cancer, and our staff will always be happy to tell you about other support organisations near you.