What to do if someone in your life is diagnosed with cancer

Photo by: Evan Dux

“Someone in my life has just been diagnosed with cancer, Gillian, what do I do?”  This is BY FAR the question I get the most on social media and on my blog.  

People want to be there for their loved ones, but they just don’t know where to start.  This is a completely fair question, unless someone has had experience with cancer or any kind of serious illness before, how would they know? 

When I get this question, I always start with a few things.  First, patience, understanding, and compassion of course.  I want them to know that I care and that they are not alone. Then I try to ask some more specific questions to be able to give the best advice that I can, because every situation and cancer diagnosis is different.  There is not one “road map” of what to do when someone in your life is diagnosed.  Which is probably why I get this question so much.  

Some of the questions I ask to help get a feel for how to best respond include things like: who is this person to you? What type of cancer? Are they having surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation? How will their day-to-day life change? These questions help me determine what type of support to suggest based on what the patient might need. 

In this blog post I have put together a starting point of what to do if you find yourself in this unfortunate situation.  However, it is not by any means the be-all-and-end-all of what to do in this situation, it is merely a starting point. 

After being a patient myself and watching my husband, mom, and friends be my caregivers and support system, I have learned a lot about what cancer patients really need in these situations.  


If you are not the direct caregiver to the patient, it can be difficult to take a step back and give a little space.  But you need to respect the patient and their caregivers by giving them time to process and deal with everything, especially in the early stages. At this time, offering too much can become overwhelming for the patient and their families.  It’s hard to give an exact timeline of when to reach out after giving space.  There are a lot of factors that go into determining this length of time, and it’s certainly not an exact science.  Use your discretion and just know that when you do reach out, be patient with the response.  If you call or text and don’t get an answer right away, know that they are telling you that they are not ready to respond just yet but will get to you when they are.  

For me personally, if I was having surgery or a chemotherapy treatment, I needed a few days buffer to process and just try to feel a little more human before I wanted to interact with people or accept anything from friends. 

If you are a direct family member or a caregiver of the patient, space is still something you need to consider.  Yes, you will be right there for them, however there are still times when taking a step back and giving the patient time to process on their own terms will be necessary.  This balance can be difficult to read but keep the lines of communication open and let them tell you what they need when they are able to.   

Communication and Support

When the time is right, reach out.  Check in with them about how they are doing and see what you could do to support them.  Everyone has different things they are capable of offering.  For more in-depth information about how to best offer help refer to my blog post: https://trigill.wordpress.com/2019/11/07/the-helpful-feeling-helpless

The main point of communication is to really listen to their feelings and validate them.  Don’t bring your own thoughts and feelings while listening to their story.  Confirm their struggles and look for ways that you could be of service to them.  This doesn’t need to be big acts; it could be as simple as just being there for them. This could include calling and saying “hi” sometimes, or “how is your day going?” Or just chatting about something completely unrelated.  They just need to know that you are thinking about them, and they have not been forgotten.


Yes, they need help and support as a cancer patient, but they are still the same person and don’t want to be seen or treated as a patient ALL THE TIME.  So, think about what your normal is with this person, and try to keep doing the things you would have always done together.  Some of those things might be more difficult now depending on surgeries or treatments and their health.  But help them create normalcy in their life so that they can feel more like themselves and not isolated from their “normal” life.  Of course, you are going to want to check in with them about their diagnoses and treatments and how they are doing with all of that but try to balance that with normal conversations.  This will help them step away from their cancer reality for even just a moment and just enjoy your company.   


You are going to want to fix things for them.  However, if there is someone in your life diagnosed with cancer you will have to accept that there is nothing you can do to change their current situation.  And that is okay because that isn’t what they are expecting from you. Each cancer experience is so individual depending on the person, the cancer, the treatment, etc.  So don’t go into this with any kind of agenda because it is not about you. Don’t offer things like medical or nutritional advice unless asked.  Just offer what you can do and let them take what they want and need. 

What cancer patients really need and want, is for their friends and family to be there for them and that they aren’t afraid to be around them.  Often people don’t know how to act or what to do around a cancer patient, so instead of trying they just do nothing.  This leaves the patient missing this person in their life and feeling forgotten or unimportant to them.  Doing something, even the smallest thing is better than nothing.  While something big has changed in their lives, it’s nice to know that other aspects of their life can still stay the same.  And you being there for them is a bigger act than it seems.

Published by tri_Gill

I am a triathlete navigating being a teacher and cancer apatient and looking to inspire others.

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