Cancer is a scary word for anyone. And when a friend or loved one is diagnosed, it can be difficult to know what to say or do. When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, you might feel anxious because you’re not sure how to talk to them. You might also have questions about their diagnosis but are unsure of how to ask. 

“It’s normal to feel upset and nervous or have a lot of questions when you find out a friend or loved one has cancer, and there is a temptation to try to ‘fix’ the problem. Sometimes the person with cancer is already overwhelmed, and cannot always express what he/she thinks or feels,” said Christian Adonizio, MD, medical director of Oncology Innovation and Analytics, Geisinger Cancer Institute. “The best way to help your friend with cancer is to be a good listener.”

Your friend is likely going through a wide range of emotions on his or her own, such as fear, anger, sadness or uncertainty, which can change quickly day-by-day. Listening without judgment and without trying to change how your friend feels is important to help them cope with the diagnosis.

To show your support in conversation, let them know you’re thinking of them. You can also ask them how they’re doing or feeling.

“Try to be encouraging, but don’t discount their feelings if they express fear of the uncertainty,” said Dr. Adonizio. “This can make it seem like their feelings don’t matter during what can be a very difficult time, because for all of us, fear of the unknown is the most scary.

Not only will a friend or loved one go though a lot of different emotions, they might also feel much better some days than others.

“If you’re going to visit your friend — whether he’s in the hospital or at home — you should always ask first,” said Dr. Adonizio. “Let him know that you can easily visit another time if he’s not feeling up for company.”

During your visit, take cues from your friend on what to discuss. On one hand, cancer is a big part of your friend’s life, and she might want to talk about how the illness is making her feel. On the other hand, talking about sports, music, current events or something else that brings joy to her might be a welcomed change.  

Your friend may also not be able to engage in a long conversation, though they appreciate your company. Try to gauge this at the outset and tailor your visit to their needs.

In addition to just being with your friend and talking to them, helping them or their caregiver with a short errand or cooking a meal can be a great help.

“Offering specific ways you can help and checking in frequently can be a big relief to both your loved one and their caregiver,” said Dr. Adonizio.

In addition to short, frequent visits, it’s important to include your friend or loved one in social events and let them decide if they feel up to it.

“Everyone handles illnesses differently. If a friend has cancer, she might want to continue her day-to-day life like normal as long as she’s able,” said Dr. Adonizio. “The best thing that you can do is accompany them on the journey, wherever it may lead.”