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What It’s Really Like

Almost everyone knows someone who’s had cancer. But you might not be aware of everything they’re going through. To show someone you care, it helps to know what their day-to-day life is like, including things they may not tell you. If you take your cues from your loved one, you’ll be ready to help them during what can be a very hard time.

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Offer the Right Kind of Help

“Let me know if I can do anything.” It sounds kind, but it puts the burden on your loved one to ask you. It’s better to make a concrete suggestion, such as, “Can I bring you dinner on Tuesday?” or “Want me to come to your next doctor visit? Call when you’re on the way to the grocery store and ask if you can pick up any items on their list. When someone has a serious illness like cancer, they might not want to ask for help but would love it if you stepped up without being asked.

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Don’t Compare

If your aunt, co-worker, or neighbor had the same type of cancer as your loved one, try not to bring it up. Cancer is complicated, and although there may be some similarities, no two people have the same emotional and physical experiences. Listen to what theirs is, and they’ll appreciate that.

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Stay in the Picture

You might find the thought of cancer overwhelming, and that’s OK. Your loved one probably does, too. If you don’t know what to say, that’s also OK -- they might not, either. A simple “I’m thinking of you” goes a long way, even if you don’t know what else to do. Send a card or an email. Talk about a book you read, a movie you saw, or a lunch you had with a mutual friend.

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You Can Talk About Your Life

If you feel hesitant to talk about your life or send pictures of fun activities, relax. Your loved one would probably love to connect and hear about what’s going on with you. They still want a real relationship. When they hear your news and see what you’ve been up to, it gives them a break from thinking about their own situation.

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Try to Be There

If you’re in the area, it’s nice to offer to go to a doctor’s appointment or treatment. This is especially true for someone who doesn’t have family nearby. Chemotherapy infusions take hours, and often people aren’t supposed to drive home afterward. You can offer to help with transportation, visit during the infusion, or both.

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Call First

Just like with anyone else, check in before you visit. Your friend might be getting ready for a nap, or they might have a low white blood cell count and must avoid being around others. Or they may have appointments and isn’t available. Make sure they know you’re coming and is up for it.

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Take Visits One at a Time

Both during and after treatment, your loved one’s physical and mental energy levels can change, even by the hour. Nausea levels can change by the minute. If you have an awkward visit with your friend who doesn’t feel well at the time or who must cancel a visit, reach out again. If you have a great visit, know that it might be different next time but still means a lot.

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You Don’t Have to Gush

It’s fine to give your loved one a compliment. But you don’t need to make a fuss over how good someone looks. They may wonder if you expected them to look awful. Remember that you can’t see cancer and or any pain someone may be feeling. And they probably don’t want to hear that they look tired or that they should be resting.

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Touch Is Powerful

Offer a hug. Cancer can often involve a lot of physical pain, from chemotherapy, ports, surgeries, and a wide range of side effects. Someone who’s going through it might want to have some form of physical touch that doesn’t hurt. They might appreciate a hand massage, a hug, or a back rub. Ask them first.

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Try Not to Give Medical Advice

It's great to ask how treatment is going and show your support. But don't suggest alternative treatments to replace their medicines, and remember that someone else's plan might not be right in this case. Encourage your loved one to share their concerns and questions with their doctors.

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Pep Talks Are Tricky

You might want to say, “You will beat this!” And that might be true. But some people don’t like battle language, especially if their cancer is in a later stage. Their idea of “winning” might be different from yours. Also, your friend or loved one might want a cheerleader but not unrealistic talk. Listen for how they feel about their condition so you can show them your support, encouragement, and care.

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What Not to Bring Up

Don’t ask about their odds. If they want to bring it up, they will.

Don’t call their cancer “the good kind.” They’re all hard to deal with, even if the outlook is good.

Don’t ask if they ever smoked, what they ate, or other lifestyle habits that could provoke shame or guilt.

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Remember Their Family, Too

When one person has cancer, the family feels it, too. Ask close relatives how they’re doing. They may be having a tough time and a lot to do. Be there for them, too. It will mean a lot to your loved one who has cancer.

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They May Have Mixed Feelings

Your loved one wraps up their cancer treatment. They might feel relief and gratitude to be done with it. Or they might feel concerned about the chance that their cancer could come back. Or they might have waves of all of those emotions. Plus, they might not have the energy or feel like their old self. After cancer, people need time to adjust.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 12/20/2020 Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 20, 2020


Pete Caramanis, and his son, Brandon, Charlottesville, VA.

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Suzanne Hoy, Columbus, OH.

Natha Horbach, Vadnais Heights, MN.

Anna Gottesman, Falls Church, VA.

Les Levin, Yorktown, VA.

Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, South Portland, ME.

Susan Reif, Tuxedo Park, NY.

Anna Renault, Baltimore County, MD.

Heather Von St. James, Roseville, MN.

Amie Walker, St. Maries, ID.

Jen Worrell, San Francisco.

Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 20, 2020

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.