My best friend has cancer: here are six ways to help

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Help a friend with cancer by taking them shopping. A fashionable portrait of two cheerful women walking in the city in winter.

My best friend has cancer: how best to help?

"Help! I just learned that my best friend has cancer." 

If you want to know how to help your best friend who has cancer, read these useful tips from someone who stood by her friend who was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer.

“I have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It is stage 4.” 

No one wants to hear four tiny life-changing words, especially not from their best friend over a Sunday morning champagne brunch. Yet, there I was, sipping a Moët & Chandon, listening to those horrible words from my bestie, Sam. My world started to spin violently around me. This is horrible. I didn’t know how to help a friend with cancer. I was completely lost.

Together, we had conquered bullies, bad relationships, racists, and taco nights that went awry, so why did I feel like the whole world came down at my feet when she uttered those words: 'ovarian cancer.' And how did this immediately become all about me and my feelings? Why, in my head, was this becoming all about me and not about my best friend who has cancer?

At that moment, I decided to gather my strength and do whatever I could to help her respond to her diagnosis of ovarian cancer, for better or worse. Then and there, I promised myself this would be about her, not me, even though I was terrified of losing my best friend to cancer. 

If you ever are faced with your best friend having a life-changing cancer diagnosis, I hope you can find my experience in supporting my best friend dying of cancer helpful at this time.

"Why, in my head, was this becoming all about me and not about my best friend who has cancer?"

Six ways to help you best friend who has cancer

1. Embrace the absurdity of life

When cancer rears its ugly head, nothing in the world makes sense after that initial diagnosis. At this early stage, we found it best to embrace the absurdity of life by watching silly movies, plays, and music performances together. Our favorites were classic movies from our childhood, especially Groundhog Day, Encino Man, and Happy Gilmore. We would sing silly songs in the car, watch funny videos online, and strive to laugh and embrace how life brings the absurd in beautiful ways.

2. Create beautiful mandalas together

To better understand the beauty in the impermanence of life, we would create mandalas using temporary materials. 

This activity can help you and your best friend see the good in the world when your perception takes a dreary turn. And it will. There is no avoiding that.

Wherever we would go, we would create mandalas using henna, sand, beads, or other items that easily wash or sweep away afterward. When my best friend had no energy or patience for this activity, I acted as the creator of our shared mandalas to help highlight the beauty we could create in the world.

I know making mandalas isn't for everyone, sp if your friend isn't into mandalas, try and find another creative outlet that works for them!

3. Assemble cancer care packages for each stage of treatment

There is no doubt about it: ovarian cancer treatment sucks. Whether it saps your best friend’s energy or brings waves of nausea, every stage of the treatment process brings its own challenges. If you really want to learn how to help a friend with cancer, you will need to get your head around each stage of cancer treatment. Conspire with your friends to create a care package for each appointment.

When I visited after her hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, Sam loved the uterus plushie I brought to bring her comfort and a laugh [this gift may not work for everyone, but I knew my friend's quirky humor, and by this stage, she was totally into laughing at cancer whenever she could]. 

To beat the nausea plaguing her during chemo, I put together a basket of all things ginger and a soft blanket to snuggle during each treatment. The cancer care package items helped alleviate the worst side effects and helped provide some comfort in a difficult time.

4. Utilize apps to create fun conversations

Do you want to know how to help a friend with cancer stop talking about their cancer! Read on! 

As you have probably realized by now, cancer tends to remain the elephant in the room during cancer treatment, creating a black cloud to dampen nearly all conversations. 

We sometimes were able to push the elephant back to the zoo and resumed our fun conversations by utilizing the power of smartphone apps. Our favorite was Snapchat, with its fun filters and quirky elements that made even the most mundane conversations a blast. 

I stayed by her side using this platform when I could not attend the hospital for Sam’s treatments. We found that when you utilize smartphone apps to keep the conversations going, you can offer support while staying lighthearted through the hardest ordeals. And when Sam wanted to talk about her ovarian cancer, I was there for her. I was there for her when Sam wanted to talk about dying from cancer.

5. Offer genuine positive compliments

As cancer treatments threaten to suck the life out of your best friend, self-esteem tends to take a dive as well. Before most people can stop them, statements like, “Boy, you look awful,” slip through the lips, reinforcing this long-term confidence dip. 

I made this mistake only once, as I saw the hurt in Sam’s eyes as I uttered the last syllable. At that moment, I made it my mission to renew my friend’s sense of self-worth by providing truly genuine, positive compliments whenever possible. I knew I was the best person to do this because I can clearly see how beautiful and amazing my best friend is, in and out. 

For my Sam, I always complimented the mischievous twinkle in her eyes, her great laugh, and her wicked sense of humor. I wanted her to embrace those pieces of herself while going through her cancer treatments.

6. Open your Ears (and close your lips)

I was uncomfortable when I was told my best friend had cancer. I was shattered when I was told my best friend could die of cancer.

I nervously overshadowed her announcements about the progress of her treatment with a running stream of support commentary. I desperately wanted to be there for her but did not know how. I realized later that, at that moment, I needed to close my lips and open my ears to share her burden meaningfully. I need to embrace those difficult conversations and not run away from them. By understanding her need for a listening ear, I became a source of calm support throughout the cancer treatment process.

As Sam faced the most important battle of her life, I learned much about being a great friend during the most terrible times. I learned how to support a friend who has cancer. 

My learning process was fraught with pitfalls, especially as I did not know how to proceed. I hope that by sharing my experience, you can offer your best friend support from day one.

Article by
Marnie Bii

Marnie Bii, the author of "My best friend has cancer," is a content marketing strategist, growth hacker, copywriter, editor, gamer, Keto nerd, and enthusiast of RC cars and everything automotive. She lives in Seattle, Washington.


When I learned that my best friend has cancer, I realized that simple things like shopping for care packages could be a fun way to get out and spend quality time together. | ©Iryna / Adobe Stock