Q. How can I support a loved one who has cancer without saying something stupid or wrong that would upset her more?

A. It is common for family and friends to be unsure of how to best help support a loved one with cancer. There are so many different ways to be supportive, and everyone has a different set of needs as they cope with a cancer diagnosis – this means that there’s no one “right” way to provide support. However, you can’t know what your loved one needs or how you can help if you aren’t acknowledging her experience with cancer.

Your loved one probably has many mixed feelings given the news of her cancer diagnosis; keep in mind that the diagnosis itself is upsetting in its own right. That said: it’s okay to ask her how she is doing and to let her know that you are available to talk or listen when she needs it. Opening the doors for communication will give her an opportunity to let you know whether she is comfortable talking about her feelings or not, which may also help you to better gauge how to be helpful. Regardless of where she is with this, she will likely appreciate your willingness to listen. And if even if she’s not “there” yet, knowing that you’re open to this type of conversation may leave her more willing to take you up on your offer when she is ready. If you are still unsure of what to say, it may be helpful to read our fact sheet, What Can I Say to a Newly Diagnosed Loved One?

People with cancer also often express a need for “normalcy,” so don’t forget to have conversations with her about regular things like television, movies, books and other current events, just as you would prior to her diagnosis. Talking about more simple things may give her a break from thinking about cancer all the time – for many people with cancer, this is helpful.

Answered by Carly O'Brien, MSW, OSW-C, LCSW