Health & Wellness

Supporting someone with cancer

Courtney Rupertus

Whether it’s your spouse, your family member, or your friend, finding out that someone you care about has cancer can present very real and difficult emotions to process.

It can also be complicated or confusing to find a way to support them because everyone deals with their diagnosis differently.

No matter the circumstance there are a few things you can do or avoid doing that will ensure your loved one feels supported during this trying time.

Make an effort to spend time with them

A common reaction to a cancer diagnosis is to avoid that person because it’s awkward and you don’t know what to say around them anymore. Unfortunately, dealing with cancer can be very isolating, for both the person with cancer as well as their caregiver.

It means a lot if you reach out and offer your support, not only at the beginning of the diagnosis, but throughout the process as well. There is usually a notable burst of offers for support and help at the very outset, but those eventually dwindle away, as sometimes you are in the throes of cancer for many months or even years at a time.

Don’t become discouraged or offended if one day you planned to visit and it wasn’t a good day for them. Every treatment plan is as unique as the cancer itself, so no one can truly predict what the good days and bad days will look like for them. Keep reaching out, and always call ahead of time.

Respect their boundaries if they just don’t feel up to talking or going outside or having a long visit. Sometimes sitting in silence with good company is just as effective.

Cards, small and thoughtful gifts, and phone calls are also good ways to let your loved one know they are in your thoughts without being intrusive if they need time to rest and recover.

Be a mindful conversation starter

In this case, mindful is just another way of saying, “Choose your words wisely.” Sometimes we rush to fill the gaps in conversation and say hurtful, unsupportive things.

If you’re not sure what to say to your loved one about their diagnosis, you can try simply listening. Many times, the one struggling with cancer just wants to be heard, to be seen, to be felt.

Try your very best not to quickly change the direction of the conversation, even if you feel uncomfortable about cancer symptoms or possible negative outcomes. Just let them guide the conversation, and you can offer support by listening intently, nodding, and asking questions when you feel they are ready. Let them process with you.

Some examples of supportive things to say include:

“You are in my thoughts.”

“I’m here for you. I’m willing to help with whatever you need. How about I bring you some freezer meals next week?”

“I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know that I care about you.”

Some examples of unsupportive things to say include:

“Well, I guess you did…smoke, drink, abuse drugs, eat poor foods, etc.”

“Well, my friend had this type of cancer and this bad thing happened.”

“I’m just sick about your cancer diagnosis. I was up all night crying.”

Try to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to try to “fix” or “solve” the person’s problems. Also, try not to make the conversation about how much their diagnosis is troubling you. It’s just not about you right now.

This is a good time to hone your active listening skills and just acknowledge that what they are feeling is real to them, and it’s okay to talk about the negative side of cancer as well as the positive.

A good resource if you want to learn more about supporting those in your life with cancer and their caregivers is the Canadian Cancer Society (