My friend has cancer
So you've heard the news. Your friend has cancer and it's like, WTF? How did that even happen? It's rare for teenagers and young adults to get cancer. Any experience you've had with cancer has probably been an older person. But this is different - this is your friend. And cancer will change both your lives. So what can you do? Well, coming here is a good start.
Cancer is overwhelming. Your friend will have different challenges to deal with but no one expects you to suddenly turn into a counsellor – including your friend! That’s not your job. Your job is to just be a good mate. So in principle, that means keeping things real and bringing the ‘normal’ back into your friend’s life.
You don’t have to solve everything. Just be there and make sure your friend knows you are.
Where will they be treated?
Your friend might be treated in their local hospital or they might travel to a specialist treatment centre for young people. They might be able to carry on with normal life at home, or they might have to stay in hospital for a long time. It all depends on their personal plan of action. Hospital can be isolating and lonely, so one thing you can do to help is make sure you stay in regular contact.
How will they feel on treatment?
Treatment can be gruelling physically and emotionally. So your friend’s likely to feel pretty rubbish. Side effects can include feeling sick and super tired. Steroids can make people put on weight and chemo causes hair loss. Imagine if this was you. Would your self-esteem take a hit?
How will they feel after treatment?
Finishing treatment isn’t always a time for celebration and partying. No doubt it’s an important and positive milestone. But “getting back to normal” is easier said than done. Cancer might have forced your friend to change their plans. They might have missed college, quit working or moved back home. There’ll be a lot of practical stuff to sort out to get their life back on track, and maybe they could use some help?
Emotionally, it’ll be a weird time. Surprisingly, hospitals bring a big, caring network of people, who they might be missing. They’ll feel pressure to not keep talking about their cancer with friends, and they might think no one can really understand how they feel. On top of that, there’s the physical effects, like fatigue or fertility issues from treatment. And then there’s the fear of the cancer coming back, and massive anxiety about their follow up tests. Now is the time that they’re going to need you.
How can I help my friend?
If your friend is stuck in hospital, they might feel everyone’s lives are moving forward while they are standing still. Show them that you haven’t forgotten about them and that they’re valued. Keep the social invites coming, even if they can’t often make it.
Make regular visits if you can, or arrange to do normal stuff if they can get out and about. If you’re too far away, message often and keep checking in. It doesn’t have to be weird – talk about whatever you usually do, like what’s going on at college or work, your favourite show or the latest footie result.
Don’t rely too heavily on social media. Your friend might use it to keep up to date with the ‘outside world’ but it has the potential to make them feel even worse. They have to witness everyone getting on with their ‘normal’ lives. So don’t assume they’ve seen your latest post. Instead, send them a little video message to let them know you miss them.
Treatment can be rough physically and emotionally so the little things help. Check if there’s any tasks you can take on. Your friend’s parents might have this covered but if their family aren’t in the picture, it can make a massive difference.
Can you pick up anything they need from the shops while they’re in hospital? If they have their own kids, can you do a school run or babysit? Maybe it’s more about acting as a point of communication so your friend isn’t having to repeat themselves again and again.
On the emotional front, you shouldn’t feel pressure to be something that you’re not. Just make time for them and be there for them. Talk to them about normal stuff so they can just be their usual self around you. Listen to them if they’re having a bad day – their feelings don’t necessarily need to be fixed. They might feel they need to be strong for other people, so make it ok for them to share the bad bits with you. But make sure you get support for yourself too.
Finishing treatment might mean that your friend loses the structure, routine and support that they’ve gotten used to since their diagnosis. Suddenly having to figure things out without this safety net is a massive deal, and you shouldn’t underestimate how difficult this could be for them.
Having to suddenly pick up the threads of their old life can be really hard, especially if cancer has changed their perspective on things or made it difficult to continue down a certain path.
The best thing you can do is to try and understand what they’re going through. Understand that they might be feeling fearful about the future, or alone, or guilty. Focus on listening, give them opportunities to talk. Don’t rush them into getting back to normal. Things might not get back to the way they were before, but that’s ok.
Read more about what your friend is dealing with
Understanding what your friend’s up against can really make a difference. Browse our info for young people with cancer by topic to familiarise yourself with some of the issues they might be up against.
Being there for your friend doesn’t mean that you’re not going to feel down at times too. Watching someone you care about go through cancer can be scary and tough. Supporting your friend means pressure on your shoulders while you also have to deal with your own emotions.
It’s normal to feel sad or low – and you shouldn’t feel guilty or selfish. In fact, sometimes admitting this to your friend can help you both open up to each other and bring you closer. It’s also important that you have someone who will listen to how you’re feeling too. So talk to another friend, your family, doctor or a counsellor.