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How To Support Someone With Cancer

Cancer support
How to support someone with cancer

One of the things I found difficult initially was how to choose my words when it came to talking to Rod about his cancer diagnosis.  I was being very careful, overthinking how it would sound to him.  I was scared to talk to him about my own feelings because he was going through enough without having to hear about my journey.


I also experienced friends and family who didn’t know what to say to us, they were just trying to reassure us that everything would be ok.  But in that initial moment, I felt like nothing was going to be ok again.


It can be an uncomfortable conversation to have when supporting someone with cancer but being honest with the person you are trying to support goes a long way.  A good friend of mine said to me “I don’t know what to say or how to support you”.  Those words were enough for me to know that she cared by being honest and vulnerable with me.  I responded that all I needed was to just to talk and for her to listen and that was enough to pick me up off the floor.


Asking open-ended questions that do not require a simple yes or no answer can be beneficial, such as:


  • It's hard for me to comprehend the emotions you are experiencing at the moment. How can I assist you in getting through this?

  • I'm curious about the true feelings hidden behind your response of "I'm fine" or "I'm doing ok."

  • Would you like me to come over and what see can we do together.

  • It must be really difficult for you. How are you feeling at the moment?

  • How can I help alleviate some of the pressure you're feeling?

  • How about we make today a day free from cancer? What activities are you interested in doing?

Woman processing her thoughts
Supporting someone with cancer over coffee


If the person is already going through treatment or about to begin treatment, this is a good time to ask questions such as:


  • What is your greatest fear or concern regarding the treatment or appointment?

  • What side effects are you experiencing with the treatment.

  • If you would like, I can take you to your appointment, I want to support you.

  • Are you happy with your treatment plan, or would you like to explore other options.


One thing that Rod and I really appreciate is when our friends just drop in for a chat or they offer to drive Rod to his chemotherapy sessions. This takes so much pressure off me as a partner.  Being in the chemotherapy suite can at times feel overwhelming, so taking a break from it certainly helps, plus Rod gets to have some time with his friends.


Maybe you don’t have time to be available right now and feel guilty for not being able to talk.  That is perfectly ok, if you let the person know that you are strapped for time, let them know what you are doing, but schedule a time to catch up.  This lets the person know that you are emotionally available for them, that you are here to support them through their cancer diagnosis. I always finish my conversation with I’m so glad you shared that with me, it helps me to feel more connected with you.

women hugging in support
How to support someone with cancer

Showing support to someone with cancer can be as easy as:

  • Giving them a hug.

  • Asking if they want to go for a walk, coffee or shopping with you.

  • If it seems suitable and you are familiar with the person, consider sharing a humorous social media post that resonates with them to cheer them up.

  • Sending a “I'm thinking of you text”.

  • Listening without judgement or trying to change their perspective.

  • Asking if they need time alone.

One of my friends sent me a note in the mail saying I’m thinking of you.  She has no idea how much I needed that note right then.


Some things to avoid are:


  • Encouraging them to maintain a positive attitude or keep their spirits up might make them feel that their emotions are being invalidated, potentially leading to them distancing themselves from you.

  • Telling them you know how they feel or you understand how they feel – every persons feelings are individual to them and we can never truly understand what it is like to be in their shoes

  • Comparing their situation to someone else you know – every person’s experience is unique to them.

  • Providing advice. When we give advice, we are sharing our own perspective, which may not necessarily be suitable for the person going through a difficult situation.


There will be times when the person needs time alone or may come across as abrupt and that’s ok.  Everyone needs space to process what’s going on, please try not to take it personally.  I know from my perspective; I withdrew completely for weeks at a time.  I have unintentionally disconnected from some of my friends without even realising I was doing so.  If this is happening to you, it’s ok to tell them you miss them and you understand that when they are feeling stronger you will be here waiting.


Understanding that listening to the trauma of others can be challenging for some, I made a point as a counselor to constantly remind myself that their experiences were not my own. I was there to provide support with empathy without letting their trauma affect me personally.


There is also something rewarding knowing that you have just helped the other person release some of their trauma by being supportive and providing a safe, non-judgemental space and that is such a wonderful gift you can give. Remember there is no hard and fast rules and if you feel like you have said something insensitive then let the person know, it opens up the conversation further.


Much love ~ Chris x

Christine Keep - Author & Blogger
Christine Keep


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