The 10 simple ways to help a friend with cancer feel better – and less alone

WHEN cancer strikes, it's not just you it gets.

It affects your family, loved ones and friends.

One in two of us will get the disease at some point in our lives – for me stage 4 bowel cancer just came a bit sooner than anyone could've predicted.

When it did, I was blown away by the love and support from so many people.

But, and I don't mean to sound ungrateful here, many people do come at you with the inevitable cliche phrases:

  • "You are stronger than cancer"
  • "You can fight this"
  • "Don't give up"

Of course having your very own cheer team behind you is most welcome.

But sometimes even the squad needs a bit of gentle training.

If you're the one that's ill, it's exhausting having to think up ways other people can help you…you barely know how to help yourself!

So, to make life a bit easier for you – and your loved ones – I thought I would share the top ten ways you really can make life a bit better for a loved one if cancer comes calling…

1. I'm still the SAME person

If they liked lipstick before cancer, they still like lipstick post cancer.

Going out, good food, a gritty book…what they loved in life then is unlikely to have changed overnight, just because cancer reared its ugly head.

All too often I feel defined by my cancer.

People are quick to forget that I was a deputy head teacher, or that I love sport, good wine, clothes and fashion.

Cancer does change you, there's no denying that.

But you can give a party girl cancer, and chances are she's just going to carry on taking cancer to the party!

While it might feel like cancer is their complete world, it's not – and it's so helpful to have friends around you that remember that.

2. Don't ALWAYS chat cancer

When your friends discover you have cancer, they will want to talk about it with you.

People care, and so they want to know how you're feeling, how the treatment is going, what the plan is.

But it can get really tiring having to explain it over and over again.

My advice? If you're the cancer patient, ask your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, mum or dad to play the role of central contact.

Get them to provide the "need to know" info, and let the person with cancer just enjoying chatting like old times.

3. Laugh with me through the darkest days

Never has a saying been more true, if you don't laugh you WILL cry (buckets).

It might feel like the last thing you want to do, but laugh…giggle with your friends and loved ones.

Find a shred of humour in the darkest moments and lighten the load.

Whether it's your exploding dodgy chemo tummy, the relentless chemo farts, or other bizarre side effects, look for the humour in everything.

Yes it's crap, but there is humour in there somewhere. Find it and you will feel a bit better, if only for that moment – it's worth it.

4. Write to me

If your friend or loved one gets diagnosed with cancer, write to them.

Sometimes it's hard to say what you feel, it can be difficult to make sense of it all and if you can't say it, why not write them a letter?

Think about writing regularly.

I was lucky enough to have a friend who wrote to me every chemo cycle, and before every op for 18 months.

Every two weeks I received a little postcard updating me on their life.

It was brilliant, I got so much out of knowing someone was thinking about me – someone had taken the time to put pen to paper.

It may seem like such a small thing, but to me it meant everything!

5. Drop some food round

Don't ask your friend with cancer what they fancy eating, because chances are they will say nothing.

When you're having treatment you can be left feeling really, really sick.

Your love of food can just disappear, without warning.

But, I was always surprised at how, even when I was feeling really rough and didn't want to eat, the egg sandwich that happened to land on my doorstep, the veggie lasagna that appeared from nowhere, really did go down a treat.

When you're cooking up a feast for your family, just make an extra couple of portions and run them over to your friend.

In the midst of their cancer hell, it will mean the world.

6. Simple acts of kindness go a long, long way

From offering to walk the dog to arranging to take your friend for a walk in the local park…it's the small things that count.

A quick coffee, dropping a book round, it can be anything.

Acts like these just tell that person gripped by cancer that you're thinking of them. And they don't go unnoticed, I promise you.

7. Don't ask, just do

Rather than ask, "how can I help you?", flip it round so your friend doesn't have to think!

Tell your friend you've booked tickets to the latest film at the cinema, don't give them the option.

Rather than say, "Do you fancy a coffee", say, "I know a great little coffee place, when can I meet you there?".

8. Visit me in hospital

Hospitals can be scary places.

As a patient you have given lots of information, and it can be really hard to take it all in.

And hours attached to a chemo pump go by much faster if you've got a pal there to chat to, or watch films with.

Having a friend by your side can stop your mind going into cancer overdrive.

9. Cry with me

Listen to your friend, let them talk openly, let them cry.

Don't feel you have to provide the solution, or have all the answers, no one does.

But just being there and providing a shoulder to cry on is invaluable.

If your friend wants to talk about dark things, about dying it will make you sad. But let them.

All too often people say to me, "Deborah, don't talk like that".

But I actually find it a positive part of my acceptance process.

As hard as it might be to listen to your friend's deepest fears, accept they are very real to them and be a rock, help them through.

10. Don't tell me to fight

Don't tell your friend, "I know you'll beat this" or to "stay positive".

Building on the idea that your friend has to "fight" cancer can have a negative impact on some patients.

If things aren't going to plan, it can leave you feeling like a failure.

It's not fair to put all that pressure on, cancer behaves the way it wants to, us patients have no control.

Accept that cancer comes with a roller coaster of emotions and be there to ride it out with your friend.

And if all else fails, drink wine, cheers the moment, live for the day and make precious memories to last a lifetime, however long that might be.

Step up is done (nearly)

I've done it, almost.

For the 30 days of June, I have danced, boxed, jumped, run and flown my way through the month.

I've taken on a different challenge each day to remind you that every 30 minutes someone dies of bowel cancer in the UK.

Honestly, I'm shattered.

It has been fun and I do highly recommend it as a good way to kickstart getting back into exercise.

Thanks to all those people who have helped me with my missions.

Let's bring on the next one…and it turns out we don't have to wait too long.

Walk Together is the next one. It's a great walking series organised by Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer.

It's back for a second year, this September, and gives people a way to get together, show support for those undergoing treatment, remember loved ones lost, and help raise money to stop bowel cancer.

It's for people of all ages and abilities.

To sign up and find out more visit the website here.


One unexpected moment, I'm free – allowed to pretend I am regular 36-year-old.

The next, I'm brought right back down to Earth as I find myself back at hospital for MRI scans (not what you want on the hottest day of the year).

MRIs are the slow, noisy partner of the scanning world.

Ninety minutes, one panic attack, 30 minutes of crying and three staff comforting me, and I got through it.

In a week where yet again I have lost another friend to this horrible disease, too much time thinking about what might be lurking in the shadows of my body is a bad thing.

While others my age have new babies, marriages and other lovely things happening, I have scan season and funerals.

F*ck you cancer!

Come join the BowelBabe Facebook community. I’d love to hear from you about #thethingscancermademesay.

Tell me your journey, show off your scars, share what keeps you smiling, or how you are giving two fat fingers to cancer (or anything else for that matter!)

To contact me email [email protected] and you can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram


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