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How to Help Someone With Cancer

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Some years ago I battled colon cancer, and as a pastor, I’ve walked with many a friend on their cancer journey. It’s never easy to know what to say or how to help someone with cancer—the emotional and physical struggles can be confusing and scary for them and for those who surround them.

This last week I sat with my good friend, Fran, after she received news that she has breast cancer. Fran serves as a Chaplain with our Foursquare denomination and our church.

Yesterday I shared Fran’s situation with our Father’s House family and coached them in the following ways to help Fran during this time. I hope you find these tips helpful also.

Relational ways to help someone with cancer

1.  Keep relationships as normal as possible. Not every conversation should be a cancer conversation. In fact, most cancer patients get tired of repeating all the latest reports on their health. They long for normal conversations.

2.  Every cancer journey is different. Don’t assume that your cancer experience, or a family member’s cancer experience, is anything like what your friend or family member is now going through.

3.  Avoid statements like, “Everything will be just fine” or “Don’t worry.” Although you mean to encourage, your friend or family member might feel dismissed or that you aren’t taking his illness seriously.

4.  Ask the person if they are available for a phone call or emailing. Don’t be offended if they are not. Some cancer patients find it difficult to talk over the phone or engage in long email conversations. They get overwhelmed easily—especially with people who are not family. Others enjoy this type of socializing.

5.  Listen to whatever the person would like to talk about without trying to “fix” her concerns. Often a person just wants to be heard.

6.  Be comfortable with silence. Just being with a person who has cancer communicates support.

7.  Perhaps you are like many people who hesitate to touch a person with cancer. Don’t be. Cancer isn’t like the flu—it isn’t catching. A simple touch can help someone with cancer more than words.

8.  Your friend or family member may have cancer, but he still cares about you and your life, so share about it.

9.  When invited, enjoy the good times—the holiday celebrations, birthdays, and the girl’s night out. Laughter is healing, and joy brings life.

10.  Don’t stop by to visit unexpectedly if your friend or family member is still at home. Always call first. He or she may not feel well enough to engage visitors on any given day.

Suggested ways to express your concern:

  • “I’m sorry to hear you are going through this.”
  • “I know this must be hard for you.”
  • “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
  • “How are you doing?”

Spiritual ways to help someone with cancer

Thoughts of death are the first thing a person thinks about when he receives the news that he has cancer. Other concerns and fears soon arise. However, that doesn’t mean your friend or family member may want to talk about his journey with you. Be sensitive to where a person is at emotionally and follow these guidelines:

1.  Let your friend or family member know that you will be praying for him or her regularly, and then do so.

2.  Not everyone appreciates receiving prayer or even an encouraging conversation “on the spot.” Always ask if it is a good time to pray, talk, or receive a “word from the Lord.” Then respect the person’s answer.

3.  Sometimes it is hard for a cancer patient to listen to anything that is more than a few sentences long, so write out encouraging prayers, Scriptures, and thoughts God gives you for your friend. She is then free to read them over at her convenience.

4. Avoid giving books or sermon CDs without asking if the person would be interested in reading or listening to them. When I had cancer I received so many of these types of gifts I couldn’t consume them all. Nor did I want to.

5.  A well-chosen card or letter is often an uplifting part of a cancer patient’s day. Slow mail beats email every time on this one.

6.  Offer encouragement, but don’t preach—avoid joining the Job’s Friends Club.

7.  Be sensitive to your friend’s emotional ups and downs. She may not be in the mood to be around people, receive prayer, or listen to your advice. Or she might. So ask.

Practical ways to help someone with cancer

Some people may want help while others may not. If the person doesn’t want help, don’t be offended. Ask again in a few weeks. If the person seems open, ask what he or she needs help with and offer suggestions. Some tasks you might offer to help with are:

  • Run errands
  • Help with housework and/or yard work
  • Cook and freeze meals
  • Help with children or pets
  • Provide DVDs, magazines, or books
  • Come by to visit
  • Transportation to doctor’s appointments
  • Help decorate for the holidays or special events

No one chooses to have cancer, but as followers of Christ we want to be available to graciously help our friends and family when they are on a forced cancer journey.

Growing with you,


Your turn: What tips can you share that have helped you, or someone you know, during the difficult time of fighting cancer?

Related posts:

Praying Through Cancer

Let Go Of the Rope

“Jesus likes it when we share.” -Adelaide, age 3: Pass this along to everybody and their brother. OK, maybe not everybody’s brother, but you know . . . all of your friends would be nice.

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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Lilly

    Tough stuff to go through, but this is good advice. We just talked with a friend Sunday who has a recurrence of cancer.

    1. Susan

      I don’t know what is worse…the original news, or news of a recurrence. Things like this seem to swallow up the holidays for so many, and the rest of us often forget about those who struggle during this time. Your friend is blessed to have you guys, Lilly.

  2. Lonnie Jeffries

    Thank you sweet Woman of God… this is so helpful right now. Lonnie

    1. Susan

      Thankful you found it helpful, Lonnie. Blessings to you.

  3. cindy king

    we had a friend that had to go through hrs of treatment i think what i saw that helped was we got him a little light weight dvd player that we had and took his favorite movies so he could have something to watch while he sat in the chair for 6 hrs a day we would exchange the movies for him . taking care of children for them also helps a lot, giving them a break even for overnight . and of course prayer lots of it . its just doing the little things that are big things to them . hope these ideas help someone cindy k

    1. Susan

      Great suggestions from your life experience, Cindy. Thanks for sharing them. The small DVD player for the treatment times is a keeper!

  4. Julie Fry

    Thanks for this Susan. My sis was just diagnosed with cervical cancer. Reading your words helped. Grateful.

    1. Susan

      I’ll be praying for your sister, Julie. It must be so difficult for you all to walk through this during the holidays. Peace to you.

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