What to do when your friend gets cancer

Self-portait. Berkeley, Calif. 2013.
“Say a young, vivacious person you adored just found out he had cancer. What’s a not-stressful-for-him way to help out? Is there one?” — Erie on Twitter

A friend tweeted the above awhile back. Most folks don’t know what to do when they get terrible news like this, but they know they want to help. As a 3-time cancer survivor, I’m grateful to have been on the receiving end of gorgeous outpourings of love and help. That also means folks now come to me asking: “What do I say? What do I do?”

Having been to this rodeo a number of times, I responded to Erie in a rapid series of tweets:

  1. Tell him “F cancer.”
  2. Say wildly inappropriate things to make him laugh.
  3. Buy him a cookie.
  4. Tell him you’re there for him.
  5. When the ish starts to hit the fan, just go sit with him. Don’t need to talk.
  6. Buy him a drink.
  7. Don’t let him google ANYTHING.
  8. Ask what makes him happy, then find little ways during treatment to introduce happy.
  9. Help him find gratitude.
  10. Make small meals, ready to eat/freeze. Cooking SUCKS when kicking cancer in the nuts.

And because I miscounted on Twitter, a bonus one:

11. Don’t pity him. EVER.

Lately, sadly, I’ve been getting the “How can I help?” question more often. (It’s what prompted this post.) Heartbreaking, truly. A couple people have said, “I want to call. Should I?” In the beginning, calls can be hard because you’re telling the story over and over again. A note, an email, a physical card works because they can be read whenever. In reality, if you’re asking yourself whether you should call, chances are you’re not in the inner circle of folks who can, or should. (Not being harsh, just being real.)

The best thing you can do, if you do decide to reach out, is ask: “Are you looking for solutions or comfort?”

Source: Things without arms and without legs

So many things I’ve read talk about what to do, say, or send, but I’ve yet to see one that puts the person most affected at the center of things: the person fighting the cancer. Some people wanted inappropriate humor, or flowers, or not flowers, or meals, or meals with no mushrooms. I love this comic from Things without arms and without legs because it puts the focus on the fighter and asks what they want.


According to her 2nd grade report card, “Kara likes to talk. A lot.” You can follow her on Twitter: @KaraDeFrias.

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