How To Be A True Friend To Someone Who Has A Cancer Diagnosis

How to listen to their suffering without judgment, or a desire to rectify things.

For Adeline,

Here’s what you have to do. You have to be there to listen to their suffering without judgment, or desire to rectify anything. Have a nice day.

How come you’re still here? I’m done. I’ve told you above how to do it. Begone, miscreant!

Still here?

Well, I guess we’re going to have to do it the long way then.

Read this article. Read it in its entirety. Ponder it. The ride is not all going to be all flowers and bunny rabbits, but for the sake of your friend, heed what I have to say.

Let me start with this. Your friend did not decide one day to have cancer. Yes, it just happened. Don’t try to find reasons why it happened. Even if you, by any chance, can point to something. Maybe they smoked. Eject this thought from your mind. No one starts smoking thinking that their reward is going to be cancer. More importantly, this thought is not going to help you be a good friend. I’d say that if your aim is to be a bad friend, then don’t bother “helping.” Your help is not going to be welcome.

A cancer diagnosis is generally an event that generates anxiety, and maybe depression. I say generally, because there’s always the unicorn, or the odd duck, I was one of those odd ducks. When I got my cancer diagnosis, my body was slowly shutting down. I was dying, but I did not know why. I was close to leaving this planet, and I had no plan of attack. I was helpless. My diagnosis gave me the plan of attack I desperately needed. Without being diagnosed in extremis, I’d be dead today. I’m now almost three years in remission. However, even I experienced anxiety and depression. For most people, a cancer diagnosis is going to be a reminder that their own life will, one day, end.

If your friend has just gotten their diagnosis, there may be a variety of treatment they may be getting. Some cancers can be treated with pills. Some require surgery. Some require radiotherapy. Some chemo. Or something else. Some require a combination of these procedures. I hear that some procedures are easier than others. My chemo definitely wasn’t on the easy side of things, and neither was my stem cell transplant. They had to test me to make sure I wouldn’t die during my transplant. That’s how rough of a treatment it is. At any rate, whatever the procedure, there is going to be anxiety, and maybe depression.

The treatments for cancer are numberless. I vow to learn them all!

No, it is not necessary to learn them all.

I must broach the topic of death. This could be your friend’s last journey on this planet. Sobering thought, eh? A young 20-something girl died while I was helping her. Her treatment was no walk in the park, due to allergies she had, and the specific type of cancer she had. I was also helping the daughter of a 68-year-old lady. This lady had exactly the same cancer that I was able to beat. She did not survive her chemo. She couldn’t have possibly gone through the gauntlet of a stem cell transplant. Now, medicine advances all the time. 33 years ago, I would have died from my own cancer. There was just no treatment. 13 years ago, the treatment for it was still experimental. Medicine definitely advances.

Your friend is going to be suffering during their journey through cancer. Some suffering is going to be mental, like anxiety and depression. Some suffering may be physical. The side effect of their treatment can cause all kinds of problems. In my case, I puked and I shat my diapers.


Hell yes! I was not about to shit my bed and have the nurse have to change it in the middle of the night. What I’m telling you here is not even the whole story, but it should be enough to make you realize that the times ahead may not be all rosy.

What do you do when your friend expresses their suffering? The answer is extremely simple: you listen. You listen without judgment, or desire to rectify anything. There is no greater gift for your friend than this ability to listen without judgment, or desire to rectify things. The capability to listen without judgment is a gift of immeasurable value. See, I think most of the issues that people run into when trying to be there for a friend is that they are trying to rectify things. When you do this, you stop listening without judgment.

Usually, this desire to rectify things is a rejection of your friend’s suffering. You are uncomfortable in the face of their bad mood, or their crying. Maybe it reminds you that your own life is limited. The bad mood, or the crying, are merely symptoms of what is going on. However, faced with the symptoms, you decide to tackle them. You tell your friend to relax, or you talk about this or that, while ignoring the very real suffering that they are expressing. You’re no longer being a true friend then. No, instead, you reveal yourself to be there only to assuage some sense of guilt. You reveal yourself to be a FINO, a “Friend In Name Only.”

Or you suggest that they should find the silver lining in their situation. After all, their treatment is only pills. They could be having it worse. Please do not minimize the difficulties they are experiencing. Just listen. Can there be silver linings? Yes. However, it is not for you to tell your friend what the silver linings are, or if they exist at all. The silver linings may not appear way after treatment. My own silver linings did not appear a good one year to one year and a half after treatment. Badgering me to see the silver lining earlier would have not been conducive to my happiness.

Do not try to predict the future. I think even expressing hope can be fraught with danger. “I hope you’re doing fine” can become problematic if your friend is not doing fine, and they dash your hopes. Definitely do not tell them that everything is going to be okay. You don’t know what ordeals they may have to go through before everything is okay. Everything may never be fully okay after their ordeal. I still deal with chemo brain, and I will until I die. It is just a fact of having received the treatment that I did. If your friend is venting, then let them vent.

If you have your own cancer experience, and you survived, you can share your experience with your friend. In a lot of cases, your own story will be well received. However, you should still listen to your friend and listen to their needs. Maybe now is not the right time to tell them about your experience.

If you want to help your friend with concrete action, please don’t tell them that you’d do anything for them, and then get an answer that you don’t like. Moreover, make sure to coordinate with other people who are desirous to help to avoid duplicating efforts needlessly. If everybody brings a meal, and there’s more food than what your friend can use, you’ve only created a headache for them. This headache may even be more pronounced for autistic people. I like to optimize my eating to avoid waste. If I’m put into a situation where something is going to be wasted, I’m not happy.

Perhaps doing the laundry would be a better deal, but make sure that the friend you are helping wants it. Someone might not want you to go through their underwear, for instance. The key here again is to listen to your friend. Is there a need they expressed? I’ll also remind you that listening without judgment is a gift of immeasurable value. I’ll also say that people who can listen without judgment are rare creatures indeed. Maybe your friend does not need anything more.

“Wait. Didn’t you say to not have a desire to rectify things?”

Yes, I did. Let me explain. The issue is when, even prior to meeting your friend, you start concocting ideas about what you are going to do. This is not helpful. You don’t know yet what your friend is going to need. Let them manifest themselves and tell you what they need, either explicitly or implicitly. Then you can act in accordance to what they told you. It is when you premeditate what you are going to do for your friend that you usually run into trouble.

Moreover, you should remember to take care of yourself. Don’t burn yourself out trying to help a friend. If you do, your mood will probably suffer, and you won’t be able to just listen. You’ll want to eliminate the symptoms of your friend’s suffering, and you’ll start saying slogans about seeing the silver linings, etc. You’ll turn into a FINO. If you are tired, it is better to take yourself out of the equation for a while rather than impose yourself on your friend.

I’ll conclude by saying that there are always exceptions. You may find yourself with someone who wants you to make their meals, etc. Still, the solution is always to listen to their suffering, without judgment, or a desire to rectify things. Perhaps you’ll make mistakes. Apologize, move on, and let it go. If you start harping on your own culpability, you’re putting the focus on yourself. Don’t do this.

I hope my article has been useful, and that you can give the gift of true friendship to your friend.

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