How to Encourage Family Members or Friends who have Cancer

This entry is part 20 in the series Friends

(Originally published January 2016. Updated 23 January, 2018)


When I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer with glandular involvement, I found my family members and friends reacted in one of several ways.

1) There were those who rose up and said, “We’re here for you.”

This included my family members who lived at home, and I hate to think what my year of cancer treatment would have been like without their support. But it also included many of my friends.

The evening following my surgery, I had so many visitors it was embarrassing, so I did what all post-operative patients are allowed to do and went to sleep on them! Once I returned home however, the visitors spread out, and it soon became evident those who were going to truly support us through the time. And there were a good number of them, for whom I praise God.

2) Others, including family members, didn’t cope well.

In at least one case this was because the lady had lost two family members to cancer, and couldn’t handle a third. She didn’t live in our town, but kept meaning to answer my email. However the days went by and, believe it or not, she forgot I had cancer! A couple of years later, during a phone call, she realized what had happened, and was mortified. How could she have forgotten me during that time?

On my side, I was confused that she didn’t reply to my email. She wrote to me, but it was as if she’d never heard I was ill. Only after we opened up the subject, years later, did I understand what had happened.

3)  A close family member had just moved to a foreign country across the globe.

She had tiny children and was already stressed to her limits trying to adjust. She didn’t forget—she wrote and emailed me whenever she had the chance. But her comments showed me that although she hadn’t forgotten my diagnosis and treatment, she didn’t have a clear understanding of where I was at. That hurt me, and I took it to mean a lack of interest. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Months later, a psychologist gave me this explanation: She had so much going on in her life, she couldn’t also cope with someone she loved dearly who had cancer and whom she couldn’t visit. Her subconscious mind created a “mental cupboard” in order to protect her emotionally, and whenever she received news from me, she skimmed through it, then stored it in the “cupboard”. When she sat down to write to me, she couldn’t bear to re-read my emails so answered it from her “filtered” memory. When I heard this explanation, it helped me so much and alleviated the hurt I had felt.

4) Others didn’t know how to speak to me or act around me, and so they kept away.

They were dealing with their own shock, and they didn’t know how we were coping. I wish they’d sat down and spoken to me. Perhaps they thought I wouldn’t notice their absence, but I did.typexnick/Flickr

5) There were those who seemed to think I was contagious. 

They visited, but stood at the door and left in a rush with some sort of excuse, which left me confused and feeling rejected.

6) Some had me dead and about to be buried.

They offered no hope. For some strange reason, they usually found it necessary to tell me all about someone they knew who had died from breast cancer. Not at all what I wanted or needed to hear.

7) One lady was devastated by my diagnosis, and seemed to want to visit so she could cry with me. 

Only thing was, I didn’t want to cry with her! She seemed to feel committed to do all she could to depress me. Eventually, my husband had to step in and try to prevent her from visiting. As soon as we saw her car draw up outside, he chased me off to bed. He could then honestly say, “I’m sorry. Shirley’s lying down.” That of course led to more stress in our lives. And the poor lady was even more worried that I seemed to spend the entire day on my bed!

8) Some struggled with my sense of humor.

They seemed to feel it was inappropriate to do battle with a life-threatening disease with a smile on my face and making jovial remarks. The trouble is, by nature I often see the funny side of not-so-funny events, and make flippant remarks to lighten the gravity of the situation. Instead of supporting me in my personal reaction, inappropriate though they might think it to be, I later learned some labelled me as being “in denial.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.

9) I received a couple of visitors that weren’t really friends at all.

This happened especially in hospital. I came to the conclusion that they were there to satisfy their own curiosity and sure enough they never came back. They probably thought I would be touched. I was just baffled! There are some strange people in this world!

10) And then there were those called to preach!

Oh my. They brought me the Gospel. They urged me to have faith in God. They quoted all the verses they could think of to convince me that if I had faith I would be healed. Far from building me up, these people annoyed me and put me on the defensive. I often had to bite my tongue. “Who do you think I’m trusting in?” I wanted to snarl in my most loving Christian fashion.

Do you have someone who is currently doing battle with cancer?

As you read through these different reactions, and there are more of course, see if you can identify where you fall in. If you are a 1), then praise the Lord for the way you are supporting your loved one. If you fall into any of the other categories, pray about your reaction. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Look at the message your reaction is giving to the patient, and look for another better way to show your support.  

Your family members or friends have professional medical assistance. They need friends. Real friends. Friends who will love, support, and accept them without judgement. Cancer is a beastly intruder in anyone’s life, and you never know how you will cope until it hits. So let them be themselves, and you just love and pray for empathy.

If you’ve had cancer, what did people do that encouraged you?

If you have a friend with cancer, what do you think you could do to bring encouragement?

Please leave an answer in the comment box below. Your words could go a long way to uplifting a person you may never meet.

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2 comments on “How to Encourage Family Members or Friends who have Cancer

  1. It’s been my experience that to continue the friendship as it has always been seems to be the best thing going. If you visit often, continue to do so. If you meet occasionally, continue to do that as well. You have to deal with the elephant in the room from time to time, but the friend is still the same person she was before the diagnosis. Yes, let her know you are praying, Yes, let her know you know this is serious. But continue to share and laugh and cry and be silly just as you were before the diagnosis. You may need to make some adjustments by offering to do things, run errands, call friends, have the husband/family over for supper or fix meals, do laundry–whatever.

    • Thanks so much for this, Judith, and you’re so right. If you continue to behave the same way, your friend will be able to relate normally to you as well. Yet so often, visitors are so shocked themselves, they put on an act – and it often doesn’t work for either of them!

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