Real Stories: Supporting Friends with Cancer & Illness

Mother with cancer kissing daughter

“Despite the negative impact of cancer and the suffering, I have never felt as loved and cared about by so many. It has stayed with me. It made me realize how wonderful it would be if we all let people know how important they are in our lives—how special they are—before something bad happens to wake us up to start showing how we feel.” —Leslie M.

A diagnosis can change a family’s journey in an instant. Priorities shift and the way they measure time starts to change. The road can be long. When it comes to navigating these experiences, the support of friends and family is key. Although there’s sometimes pressure to say or do the exact “right” thing, as long as you say or do something, your gesture will mean more than you know.

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What to do for a friend with cancer or illness  

“Support came from everywhere: cards, flowers, food, gifts, calls and friendship. A nurse who was with me when I got more bad news was able to see the exhaustion on my face and in my body language. She gave me a prayer of sorts that had such an uplifting message that I turned to it over and over again. I gave it to my husband when he was diagnosed with cancer, too, and have shared it with so many people who are going through difficult times. It still speaks to me and I keep a small copy in my wallet.” —Leslie M.

  • Check in consistently—and spread out the TLC. When the dust settles and the newness of a tragedy fades, families can sometimes feel forgotten, especially if their journey lasts for months or years. Save up and share your support later on, because that’s often when people need it most. Offer to feed or walk their dog, pick up a grocery order, gift the family a housecleaning service or grab them something while you’re out running errands.


“Along the way, it was important for us to celebrate all the benchmarks, even the little ones.” —Megan Z.

  • Honor each milestone. Find ways to help them celebrate along the way (final chemo, “new 1st birthday,” going home from the hospital, good news or reaching a recovery goal). Send uplifting decorations for their hospital room or home, or create and share a celebratory playlist for them to listen to.


“One friend started a meal train for me, where I got several nights a week off of cooking. Another friend texted me to say ‘Please put a cooler on your porch next week. We will be supplying dinner every night. XO.’” —Mo S.

  •  Take care of the caregiver, too. In many cases, they are likely neglecting their own comfort or health in order to support their loved one. Consider care packages of snacks, delivered meals, books, magazines, gift cards or games. Extra credit if you can bring the caregiver a healthy snack (desserts are delicious, but may not help keep up their energy).

What to say to a friend with cancer or a serious illness  

“People often looked at us with pity, but we just wanted to laugh and have normal conversation.” —Megan Z.

  • Make them laugh. Send the funny meme. Forward the silly photo. Lighthearted distractions are appreciated.


“We were all shocked by the intensely personal and heartfelt messages people sent to us. All of them lifted the veil of time, distance and even lost friendships. Each word touched our hearts and lifted us up and helped us get through the long days at the hospital.” —Chris G.

  • Tell them you care, you love them, and that you’re sending good energy or prayers. These phrases may seem overdone, but families never forget those who lifted their spirits during the long journey. Conversely, avoid saying that everything happens for a reason or that everything will be OK.


“Friends would tell me, ‘We’re on your team. Keep up the fight!’ Their support was a shot in the arm. I couldn’t believe, with how busy people’s lives are these days, that so many people found the time to show us they cared.” —Mike M.

  • Simply ask “How is today?” Instead of requesting a full health report, which can become tiresome for the caregiver, just be with them in the here and now. For many families, the journey isn’t just day by day; it is often managed hour by hour or minute to minute.


“It was a long haul with a lot of lows. I had to reach out when I was so low I couldn’t see a way forward. Someone listening as I worked through the moment of depression and pain gave me the energy to keep going.”
—Leslie M.

  • Tell them you will be their “person.” Remind them that in their darkest moments when they don’t want to bother anyone and don’t know who to talk to, you want to be the one they call.