How to Help Someone Diagnosed with Cancer

8 min read  |  May 03, 2023  | 
Disponible en Español |

How can you be a friend indeed to a friend in need, especially when that friend (or family member) is diagnosed with cancer? To understand how to offer support that is empathetic and effective, we turned to Maria Rueda-Lara, M.D., and Joycelyn M. Lee, Ph.D

Dr. Rueda-Lara is a psychiatrist and medical director of psycho-oncology at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Lee is a psychologist at Sylvester Cancer Support Services. 

What do “psycho-oncology” services look like at Sylvester?

Dr. Lee: The psychiatrists and psychologists at Sylvester Cancer Support Services are trained to understand the unique challenges of a cancer diagnosis. We meet with the patient and sometimes their family to discuss their concerns. Using that information, we collaborate on a treatment plan which may include medication, talk therapy, or both. Common concerns include:

  • Distress over a cancer diagnosis
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Coping with lifestyle changes
  • Managing treatment side effects such as: difficulty sleeping, nausea, appetite changes, fatigue
  • Changes to family dynamics resulting from cancer
  • Anxiety about procedures
  • Coping with treatment setbacks

Some people are uncomfortable discussing cancer and don’t know what to say to someone recently diagnosed. What do you recommend? 

Dr. Rueda-Lara: Be a good listener and give the person your full attention. Do not interrupt. Only give advice if they ask for it, and share what you know. Sometimes patients do not want to talk about cancer; they want to spend time with you or be distracted from what they are going through. 

Do not ask a lot of questions about their treatment or prognosis. Patients probably just learned about their diagnosis and do not have all answers. Asking multiple questions could increase their distress. 

Dr. Lee: If you are uncomfortable but want to be supportive, start with an open-ended question: “How are you?” or “How have you been?” Allow the person to decide what they want to share. 

It’s also perfectly okay to be honest and say, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you if you want to talk.” 

Just starting the conversation is often the hardest part. Both of you might feel more comfortable once you get past the initial question. 

What are your top “do’s” and “don’ts” when offering support to someone with cancer? 

Dr. Lee: If you feel comfortable, do ask the person what could be helpful (e.g., rides to the doctor, coordinating meals, picking up children from school or daycare). 

Follow through if they accept, and respect them if they decline. Some patients have a lot of support and resources; others do not. 

Check in – the person might benefit from what you offer; don’t miss an opportunity to relieve some of the stress associated with cancer. 

Do what you can to offer emotional support.

Checking in regularly with a call or text can make a big difference. Do try to listen without judging or trying to fix things. 

Don’t pity the person.

Being pitied is one of our patients’ most significant concerns. Cancer increases everyone’s anxiety; it forces us to confront our own mortality. However, it isn’t fair to transfer these feelings to the person in cancer treatment. Being supportive can help you manage your own feelings of discomfort, anxiety, guilt, or pity. 

Don’t comment about changes in appearance, such as “you’ve lost your hair” or “you look tired.” 

Each person copes with physical changes from cancer in their own way. They may struggle to manage feelings of sadness or disappointment. Bringing attention to changes in their appearance may increase these feelings or cause embarrassment. 

Don’t offer unsolicited information about alternative cancer treatments or supplements.

Most patients already have a treatment plan created in collaboration with their medical providers. 

Offering opinions about what you think would be best for treatment can confuse the patient and undermine decisions they have already made. It also runs the risk of inadvertently complicating the patient’s treatment plan. 

Dr. Rueda-Lara: I have some “do’s” and “don’ts” for patients. 

Do cope with cancer “one step at a time.” 

Breaking it up this way makes dealing with cancer less overwhelming. It also allows you to concentrate on getting the most out of each day.

Do rely on ways of coping that helped you solve problems and handle crises in the past. 

If you’ve been a talker, find someone with whom you feel comfortable talking about your illness. If you are not a talker, you may find mind/body relaxation techniques, medications, or similar approaches helpful. Use what has worked before; if what you are doing is not working, get help to find ways of coping. 

Some people may experience a positive life change when coping with cancer. It may allow them to improve relations with others. A cancer diagnosis may change people’s priorities and create a greater appreciation for life. Fighting cancer can give a sense of personal strength, empowerment, and pride for what they have accomplished and lived through.

Do keep a notebook with all your treatment dates, laboratory values, X-ray reports, symptoms, and general status.

This information will help you and your medical team.

Do find a doctor you trust and feel comfortable with, one who lets you ask all of your questions.

Don’t blame yourself for causing cancer.

Even if you increase your risk through smoking or other habits, there is no benefit to blaming yourself. There is no scientific evidence or proof correlating specific personalities, emotional states, or painful life events to the development of cancer. 

Don’t feel guilty if you cannot keep a positive attitude all the time.

It is hard to always be positive if you are not feeling well physically. Low periods will occur, no matter how well you are coping. If the low periods become severe or frequent, please seek help.  

Don’t be embarrassed to seek counseling with a mental health professional for symptoms including anxiety, depression, insomnia, inability to concentrate, or inability to function normally if you feel your distress is getting out of hand. 

How do we support someone who is depressed, withdrawn, or angry due to their illness? 

Dr. Lee: At any stage of illness, feelings of sadness or anger are normal. Cancer and its treatment can lead to unexpected losses; the patient needs opportunities to grieve those losses. The person you know may be experiencing emotions they never felt before.

Some patients withdraw from time to time because it can be overwhelming. It is important for a caregiver or friend to listen to the person’s experiences without judgment or trying to make them feel better too quickly.

Allow the person an opportunity to express their feelings. By listening, you may help relieve their feelings. Most cancer patients adjust and cope over time.

However, some benefit from talking to a professional or joining a support group to sort through their feelings. If the person threatens to harm themselves or someone else, call 9-1-1 or take them to the nearest emergency room.

How should we react if someone did not share their diagnosis with us for a while? 

Dr. Lee: Every person manages a chronic medical condition differently. Some people openly share their diagnosis and experiences. Others need time to process what is happening or become more comfortable with their treatment plan before sharing it with others. 

Still others never share their diagnosis. Try to put yourself in their shoes; imagine everything the person is trying to navigate. As best you can, try not to take it personally if they waited to tell you about their diagnosis or told others before telling you. Respect a person’s feelings and their willingness to talk about their cancer.

What about respecting privacy, i.e., not sharing news of the diagnosis with others unless the person says it’s okay?

Dr. Lee: Any medical condition is considered private health information. A person may only want some people to know about their diagnosis. That is their choice. 

It is important to respect how and with whom the patient would like to share this information, even if you would make a different choice in the same situation. 

How can we stay strong enough to support our friend or loved one? 

Dr. Rueda-Lara: Recognize that there are feelings that are normal, for example, guilt, fatigue, and inadequacy. Acknowledging those emotions can help you process and solve them. 

Dr. Lee: Self-care and acknowledging our feelings is extremely important. We need to fill our own reservoir to support our loved ones. It is essential to maintain regular exercise and healthy nutrition.

Journaling is another way to cope and process emotions. Attending support groups for caregivers or seeing a mental health professional are other ways to build resilience as you care for your friend or loved one. and the American Cancer Society share ideas on how to support a loved one with cancer. 

Lean on your humanity. We are all human. We all want compassion and to be heard and understood.

The same is true for people diagnosed with cancer. Listening with openness goes a long way to supporting someone going through this.


Compiled by Nancy Moreland, a contributor for UHealth’s news service.

Originally published on: October 17, 2022

Tags: cancer cells, parts of the body, patients and their families, psychosocial oncology

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