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information for friends



Being told a friend has cancer can be a very strange, even scary, experience. You might have lots of questions, concerns and emotions, and feel like you don't know what to do.

 

Remember that just by being their friend, you’re already helping. By learning more about what they’re facing, you might be able to help even more. 

 

To help you, we’ve put together some common questions that friends often ask when a young person is diagnosed with cancer. As well as suggestions on ways you might be able to help them.

what exactly is cancer?

You’ve probably heard a few things about cancer during your life, but you may not be sure what cancer actually is, where it comes from, or how it's treated.

 

Our pages on hospital and going through treatment is a good place to start, but to find out more about your friend's specific type of cancer and their treatment, you may want to talk to a health professional, or chat to a member of the Redkite support team

what is my friend going through?

Cancer affects everyone differently, the changes it brings can be hard to deal with. It can affect everything from how someone's body looks and feels to whether they can keep up with school and how much energy they have for spending time with friends.

 

These are some of the more common side effects cancer treatment that your friend might experience at some stage: 

  • Feeling sick (nauseous) or vomiting a lot
  • Being tired or fatigued
  • Putting on or losing a lot of weight
  • Losing their hair
  • Having problems with mouth sores, which can cause difficulties with eating
  • Having a weakened immune system, which means they can get sick easily

As you can imagine, all these things are challenging. Your friend's confidence might be quite low as they go through treatment, especially if people are reacting to any physical changes. You can help by listening to them, being understanding if they are having a tough day, and just by treating them as you normally would.

how is my friend feeling?

Some of the things your friend might be feeling include:

  • Worried – about everything from whether they will get better through to how to keep up at school or uni
  • Cheated – that can't be a “normal” young person at the moment, that they’ve had to stop doing a lot of things, that they’re losing their independence
  • Concerned – about how their family, friends, girl/boyfriend are coping
  • Different – they might have a different perspective now on what’s important or what they want to do in their life
  • Disconnected – from friends, gossip, the outside world in general. 
  • Happy – don't forget, it’s still possible to feel happy when you have cancer

Your friend's emotions might be completely different each day. Mood swings can be expected, and sometimes they might be completely overwhelmed. But support from friends, family and health professionals will make things easier.

your reaction and feelings

Cancer can bring up strong emotions and questions about life and death. It can also be strange to see your friend look different or not act like themselves, or you might just feel numb.

 

Whatever your reaction is, it’s okay. Everyone reacts differently. You may need to take some time to work out how you’re feeling and how to manage that. If you’re really worried, it can help to talk. Don't forget the Redkite support team is here for you.

what can I do to help?

Being there for your friend, treating them as normally as possibly, and asking them what they want will be really help. 

 

A lot of people are scared by cancer and can tend to act strangely around people who have been diagnosed, or avoid them altogether. So put yourself in your friend’s position and think about how you’d like people to treat you.

 

Keeping connected is also important. Visiting is great, but use whatever works for you to stay in touch.

 

being a good listener

You might be one of the only people your friend feels comfortable talking to about what’s really going on for them. Often young people want to protect their parents and family so they keep a lot of their thoughts and fears to themselves.

 

If you're in a position to listen to your friend, here are some things that may help:

  • Don’t interrupt or change the topic, but give them space to talk
  • Ask questions, but try and be sensitive about how much information you ask for
  • It’s okay to say “I don’t know what to say”
  • Don’t judge, compare or tell them about someone else’s experience
  • Don’t share what they tell you with others unless they ask you to
  • It’s okay to stay quiet sometimes and just be there
  • Sometimes knowing what not to say (see below) can be handy

if your friend is going back to school

If you and your friend have been at school together they might be worried about going back and how people will treat them. You might be able to keep an eye on how they're managing things, check in to see if they need extra support, or just keep them up to date with anything they've missed. 

if your friend seems different

Your friend has been through some massive changes and they're probably still trying to adjust both physically and mentally. Cancer doesn’t come with a guidebook or a timeline, so everyone will have a different way of coping.

 

Do keep talking to them, keep inviting them to do things, even if they often say no. Things may not go back to the way they were, but you might find new layers to your friendship.

my friend's child has cancer

If your friend or colleague has a child diagnosed with cancer you may feel helpless at first. How do you support them through this unimaginable time?

 

The most important thing is to be there for them in whatever way you can. They’re going to need people they can rely on. At the same time, be honest with yourself about how much help you can realistically provide before you offer any. A lot of people mean well but don’t appreciate that the cancer journey can be a long one, so their offers of help stop coming after a few months. Others can disappear when the going gets tough.

 

Here are some ideas about you can support them:

  • Make specific offers rather than them having to suggest things (e.g. "I’ll cook some meals and freeze them for you, I can take the other kids over the weekend, I’ll collect the girls from soccer").
  • Give them opportunities to talk. 
  • Help with other children
  • Look after the house or garden
  • Check how they want to be contacted – are calls or texts better?
  • Keep checking in – don’t fade away after the initial rush
  • Set up a schedule with other friends to help with meals, transport, etc
  • Don’t avoid talking about the tough stuff

Even with all the best intentions, it is possible to say the wrong thing. Here are a few phrases to avoid:

  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “Don’t worry, it will all be fine.”
  • “Remember, there is always somebody worse off.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

It’s not helpful to compare what’s happening to them to other people’s experience, good or bad. The best thing you can do is be a good listener. 

connect with Redkite

If you have more questions about how best to support your friend, contact our support team on 1800 REDKITE (1800 733 548) or support@redkite.org.au.

Last updated September 2015.