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Someone Just Told You They Have Cancer—Now What?

Finding out that a friend or loved one has cancer can be shocking, intensely upsetting, and even uncomfortable. Knowing the right thing to say or do isn’t always easy, even when you’re very close to that person.

The good news is that showing your support might be more straightforward than you think. Here are five things you can consider if you are told this news:

1. First and foremost, listen: A compassionate set of ears is one of the best things you can offer. Opening up about their diagnosis helps patients make sense of their emotions and come to terms with their cancer.

“Understand that this person needs to tell their story,” said Paula H. Finestone, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Allowing your friend or loved one to fully share what they’re going through and how they’re feeling is incredibly important. Let them know you’re listening by giving them your full attention and maintaining good eye contact. When they stop talking, resist the urge to jump in with your own thoughts right away—they might be taking a pause but have more to say.

2. Say something supportive: When it’s your turn to say something, speak from the heart, but keep it simple. You can show that you care by saying things like “I’m sorry this is happening to you,” or “This must be really hard for you.” Let them know that you’re there for them anytime they need to talk.

You should not try to solve their problems or tell them you know how they feel (unless you’ve had the same cancer). And above all, don’t tell sad stories.

“Avoid sharing things about someone else who went through a similar cancer journey without a positive outcome,” Finestone said.

3. Offer realistic optimism: It’s good to be hopeful, but it’s not good to downplay the facts of the person’s diagnosis. Don’t say everything is going to be fine, that the person is definitely going to beat their disease, or that they’re lucky to have a “good” type of cancer.

Instead, just focus on the good that’s happening at that time.

“If the person is having a good day, focus on that,’” Finestone said.

4. Ask how you can help: Chances are, your friend or loved one is drained—both physically and emotionally. To support them, you can ask what you can do to make their life a little easier. If they don’t have an answer, offer a few specific suggestions of your own.

“You can ask if it would help if you brought them a meal once a week or run errands for them,” Finestone said.

5. Stay in touch: Keep checking in with your loved one on a regular basis. This will help keep your relationship balanced and provide some sense of normalcy for them, which is something the person will likely appreciate.

If they’re not up for talking, let them know that’s okay! Sometimes, a friendly text or voicemail can provide the support they need. Facing cancer can be exhausting, and you can always check back with them later or leave the ball in their court.

There are many ways we can support our loved ones when they receive a cancer diagnosis. The most important thing is letting them know that you care about them and will be there for them throughout their journey.