Survivor Stories How to Cope - Caregiver The DOs and DON’Ts of Helping a Friend Who Has Cancer

Keith Hardeman proudly supports his wife, Shelley, who is a breast cancer survivor.When my wife, Shelley, was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2017, our life at once turned from blissful routine into unadulterated chaos. Not only were we bludgeoned by emotionally charged, life-or-death medical information, but we were also faced with managing an avalanche of dear friends graciously wishing to offer their sympathies and their aid. The sheer volume of people contacting us was so overwhelming that we didn’t know how to react at first. What made matters worse was that, in our heightened emotional state, our responses might not have always properly acknowledged their efforts. A cancer diagnosis is emotionally devastating. Not surprisingly, families facing cancer are more sensitive at this time and may overreact to seemingly innocuous and well-intentioned statements. 

However, now that some time has passed and we’ve settled in to our new normal, we’ve gained some insight on how to help friends to better help us. Here are our dos and don’ts for supporting a family who is facing cancer.
Don’t give unsolicited medical advice. Outside of a medical professional with some oncological training (or, perhaps, a survivor or caregiver), there’s little medical guidance anyone could offer.DON’T try to put a positive spin on cancer. There’s no upside to cancer. The thought of telling a savagely beaten violent crime victim that “everything happens for a reason” or that the associated contusions and broken bones are some sort of metaphysical life gift is beyond insensitive. Cancer shouldn’t be romanticized, either. My wife’s body has been endlessly assaulted by toxic chemicals, needles, various surgical tools, and highly concentrated radiation. If survivors wish to reach philosophical definitions of cancer on their own, that’s their prerogative. But many would be insulted by the suggestion that cancer is a life lesson or divine plan. Let us navigate through the journey without the trivial clichés.

• Please DO respect religious differences. A family’s cancer story isn’t about others’ spirituality, or lack thereof. Follow the family’s lead on this. If we open the religious door while discussing our cancer, you can choose to walk through. However, if we don’t bring it up, you shouldn’t, either. It’s best not to insert religion where it may not be welcome.

DON’T comment on why the cancer occurred. Cancer afflicts those with healthy and unhealthy lifestyles. Why some get it and others don’t is, mostly, a biological mystery. It has more to do with bad luck than anything else. Survivors are dealing with enough without feeling blamed to boot.
Chemotherapy can significantly weaken one’s immune system. If you even suspect that you have any type of contagious illness (or if you’ve been around people who may be sick), please do not make meals for us, or visit us, or invite us over until you and all those around you are completely healthy.DON’T give unsolicited medical advice. Outside of a medical professional with some oncological training (or, perhaps, a survivor or caregiver), there’s little medical guidance anyone could offer. That isn’t a criticism. It’s reality. In addition, the survivor and caregiver likely know more than you about the disease because of repeated discussions with physicians and nurses during treatments and consultations. Please let that govern your cancer perspective when you interact with us.

DO stoke the fire of hope, but DON’T discard our anxieties. Don’t tell us, “Oh, no! I hear the survival rate for your type of cancer is low!” Conversely, casually saying, “You’re strong; you’ll beat this,” dismisses its magnitude. Emphasize the positive, but without ignoring the intense struggle. Say something like, “I can’t begin to imagine how hard this is, but you’ve come so far. Chemo must be horrible, but your physician told you it’s working.”

• If we phone you with discouraging news, please DON’T pepper us with questions. When doctors’ reports are daunting, we’re afftected emotionally. The last thing we can be is an objective, comprehensive, physician-like source of information. We’ll tell you what you need to know, but don’t press us for more at the outset. We’re still processing the news. Save questions for another time. Sometimes it’s best to just listen. Also, if we’re feeling well enough to join you for a night out, remember the cloud that hovers over us 24/7. Let’s just enjoy the evening and not make cancer the focus of conversation.

DO comment on how the survivor’s positive attitude is inspiring. But a 4 good attitude shouldn’t mislead you into believing treatment is without intense struggle. My wife’s public face has fooled many into thinking it’s been easy. Indeed, it’s been anything but that.

• If you want to help, DO contact us and be available. Offer to make a meal. To walk the dog. To mow the lawn. To rake the leaves. To shovel the driveway after a snowfall. Inquire if there’s something at the pharmacy or grocery store that needs to be picked up. Or if we just need some company. If you do call, it’s probably best to ask, initially, “Is now a good time to talk?”

• Yes, please DO provide meals. It’s most helpful during chemo treatments and surgery recovery, making for one less thing we’d have to worry about. But we definitely appreciate it any time. In addition, do remember to ask about dietary restrictions in advance. Is a family member a vegetarian? Vegan? Lactose or gluten intolerant? Are there food allergies? When in doubt, ask for specifics about what that means for any recipe.

• Please DO be very aware of your own physical health before coming into contact with us. Chemotherapy can significantly weaken one’s immune system. If you even suspect that you have any type of contagious illness (or if you’ve been around people who may be sick), please do not make meals for us, or visit us, or invite us over until you and all those around you are completely healthy. And, throughout chemotherapy, please ask if it’s OK to give either of us a hug before doing it. We wish it didn’t have to be this way, but that is our reality.

Finally, to all friends and coworkers of cancer families, thanks for being so amazing during these difficult times. We ask that you grant us some leeway when it seems we’re being a little too sensitive. But please know how much cancer-fighting families, like mine, are uplifted by your support. We’d be in a far worse place without you. We hope we’ll never have to be there for you under similar circumstances. But we stand ready, without hesitation, if needed.


Keith Hardeman is a professor of Speech Communication and the John Ashley Cotton Endowed Scholar’s Chair in Humanities at Westminster College in Fulton, MO.

A version of this article was presented at the Iowa Communication Association Conference in Ankeny, IA, on September 21, 2018.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2019.