Dealing With Cancer: Friendly Advice

1. Listen

Express your concern and offer to be there, then step back and listen. If a patient wants to talk, don’t offer advice or make assumptions. “If you’re asking a question, it should end in a question mark so they can answer it,” says survivor Stef Woods. “If you’re making statements—like ‘You’re out and about, so you must be feeling better’—then you already think you know and it shuts us down.”

2. Protect the Patient’s Privacy

Most people want a say in what information is shared. “We don’t want to have info about us wandering the halls of the workplace,” says Jessie Gruman, author of AfterShock: What to Do When the Doctor Gives You—or Someone You Love—a Devastating Diagnosis. “This is our illness and our experience, and we should get to say how it’s heard by others.” Two questions to ask of the patient: Whom do you want to know this? What do you want that person to know?

3. Follow the Patient’s Lead

Once you’ve acknowledged the illness and offered support, ask how the patient wants you to handle it—checking in daily, asking about it, or diverting the subject? If it’s a difficult topic for you, be honest and say, “I don’t know what to say or do, but I care about you and just want you to know that.”

4. If You Offer to Help, be Specific

Instead of saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” ask, “When do you want me to pick up the kids?” or “Are you having any cravings?” This is the time to be proactive instead of reactive.

The following four websites can make it easier for friends to know how to help:

CarePages and CaringBridge. At each of these, a personalized website can be created for a patient, who can then keep in touch by posting updates and photographs without expending the energy it takes for constant telephone and e-mail interactions. Friends can send encouraging notes and coordinate visits and everyday assistance.

Take Them a Meal. Create an online sign-up sheet with food preferences, allergies, and driving directions so anyone who wants to help out by cooking dinner can do so easily.

Lotsa Helping Hands. A spouse, friend, or other caregiver can set up a Help Calendar to let people sign up for tasks such as providing transportation or cooking meals.