What To Say To Your Friend Who Has Cancer

“I love you.” When your favorite person in the entire world, your best friend who puts up with your weirdness and selfishness and still wants go to bars with you and even live with you, is diagnosed with Stage 3 brain cancer, this is the first thing you should say. Let her know you love her and you can’t live without her. But don’t tell her you’re scared because she’s scared, too. Plus, she’s in pain. She just had a kiwi-sized tumor removed from her head, and because the universe is really mean, she’s also allergic to narcotics. She’s recovering from brain surgery without painkillers, so after you tell her you love her, you should get off the phone and cry for hours. Then kiss your cat and go to work because you have to and she’s at home with her family. You’ll see her soon. Tell her you love her every chance you get.

“Yes, I will eat pot brownies with you.” You hate marijuana. It makes you paranoid and each of the few times you’ve smoked pot, you’ve immediately regretted it. But she’s your friend and she doesn’t feel well and it’s pretty hilarious that her mom made these pungent, chocolate happy brownies to help with the pain from her surgery. So for solidarity’s sake, you eat one and laugh with her until she passes out. You try to sleep, too, but you’re fighting off panic. For hours.

“Fuck it. Let’s get a drink.” You are her friend, not her mother or her doctor. Your job is not to search the internet for miracle cures that don’t exist. Your job is to be her friend. Inside your head, you’re screaming and throwing things. You must do something! But remember that there’s nothing you can do. You hate the world because you know she’s nicer than you. She’s so giving and loving and you’re sort of a brat. Why is this happening to her and not you? No one knows. But you know that one of the reasons you and her get along is that you both appreciate the smell of a dingy bar. When you were both jobless in NYC (and you were freaking out about survival, inadequacy, etc.), she’d drag you to a bar, fill you with booze and you’d talk it out. Then you’d make friends and have the best night of your life. She’s recovered from surgery, but soon she starts six weeks of radiation, and oh yeah, she’s having her eggs harvested because if she survives this, she won’t be able to have children. You know what to do. To the bar!

“You’re right, this sucks. Your life sucks, but never forget that you are not alone.” Don’t tell her to stay positive. This isn’t positive. This is awful. Her whole life has been flipped upside down and inside out. She’s the only 24-year-old you know that is working on twelve chemo cycles rather than what to wear to an interview. Twelve chemo cycles: That boils down to a whole year of feeling like her insides are filled with lead and her stomach has decided it’s tired of living inside of her. It can’t really go anywhere so she fights nausea all day. Some days she’ll feel pretty good, but then it’ll be time to start another cycle. And all this is after she’s had her skull opened and sewn shut, and done six weeks of daily radiation. Her hair’s fallen out where they focused the laser, or whatever that thing is that shot radioactive bits at her brain. So don’t try to tell her it’s all going to be OK. Maybe it will be, but right now she hates her life and who are you to tell her to stay sunny? Acknowledge that this sucks and she doesn’t deserve it, but don’t let her live there, in the depths of her misery, for too long. You’ll bring her out of it by being the only one to acknowledge that she’s right — this is so unfair. But then remind her that she’s not alone because you’ll never leave her side. And remind her: maybe it would be easier to just give up, but it definitely wouldn’t be better.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” She’ll be a cancer patient for the rest of her life, even if she goes into remission. What if it comes back? When will it come back? Will I ever go back to my life? These are all questions she has to deal with, and as her best friend, you’ll deal with them, too. This is the one of the only times that it’s appropriate to deflect, to run away from your problems and deal with it later. Because right now, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Realize that it doesn’t really matter.  And then reiterate: “I love you. You’re right, this sucks. Your life sucks, but never forget that you are not alone. Fuck it, let’s get a drink. Remember when your mom made us weed brownies?” TC mark

image – Carnie Lewis


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  • So True

    as a 21 year old cancer survivor, I agree with all the above.  saying that everything will be okay does not make it so, and the reality sucks.  but it is better (though definitely not easier) to fight and live than the alternative.  friends are the ones who got me through my diagnosis and treatment; honestly, my family was more of a mess and occasionally a burden.   if your friend is diagnosed, be there, ask what you can do, and when in doubt, a drink and night of forgetting is always pretty helpful ;)  

  • laurenk

    I really liked this. and I hope you didn’t go through it.

  • http://twitter.com/Jeweledelephant Sharron

    beautifully written

  • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

    I’m not going to agree with everything you said, e.g., it’s not your job to be a doctor–you could be making a friend worse off with that attitude.  Interactions between alcohol and drugs like procarbazine could have adverse effects.  I’m not going to lecture, though.  Your heart is in the right place and it was a touching piece.   

    • Pjaime

      I think it’s worth adding that just because you dearly love and cherish your friend who has cancer doesn’t mean you have to eat pot brownies with them. I would hope that a true friend would spare someone averse to marijuana from a bad time, instead of essentially peer pressuring them into using drugs they don’t want or need.

      • Pjaime

        That being said: I absolutely loved this article.

  • Kelly

    I cried.  My friend just got diagnosed with Stage 4 a week ago, and I have never known what to say or how to act.

    I cried because this was the perfect article for me at the perfect time. Thank you :) :)

    • xoxo

      I wish you and your friend strength

      • Nnsfeir

        Thanks so much! I’m the friend with the cancer, and it means a lot to have your support. 

  • Ana

    When I was a freshman in college, a friend got diagnosed with a rare bone cancer.  No one had any idea what to say.  We muddled through as 18 year olds do, but I wish I had this 4 years ago.  She’s been in remission for 3 years now.

  • Edelsolm

    Thank you for this article. As a 24 year old who just finished radiation, I can say that you are dead-on. Especially with the “stay positive” nonsense. There is nothing positive about cancer. It sucks and the world is unfair. I wish I had had this to give to all my friends when I was first diagnosed.

    • Nnsfeir

      Hey! I’m the friend Amelia wrote this about, I totally feel your pain, but the only way to get through it is to focus on keeping your quality of life high, don’t let people push you into the “sick” box. It’s very easy to be trapped into, but you have to remind them that you’re NOT dead, you’re a survivor and as long as you’re concerned, you should enjoy life as much as you can now, especially at your age. Good luck with your fight! -ns

  • Guest

    this was absolutely wonderful

  • http://twitter.com/jennifersussex Jennifer Sussex

     I think that saying, oh, that is unfair is a step in the right direction. Most people don’t know how to respond to tragedy, how to mediate conflict, or deal with their own feelings of helplessness. I don’t know how you feel about any type or religion or mediation, but that might be helpful to someone experiencing physical pain. If that doesn’t help, then it will help give the ailing person social support in their community.

  • Anonymous
  • douchegirl

    I loved this. Made me tear up. I really hope I never have to deal with this ever. 

  • taudrey

    As a 19 year old cancer survivor (I was diagnosed when I was fourteen), I totally agree and was really moved by this. I also would like to add that its alright to LAUGH about how fuckin’ ridiculous the whole cancer world is. don’t be afraid to joke around, tease her a little, do funny impressions of her weirder doctors, pick out silly wigs for her to wear. my friends affectionately called me ‘cancer queen’ when I was sick, and still refer to my illness in the most irreverent and hilarious way possible. some people thought they were being rude and insensitive, but honestly, my life was so GRIM and so depressing, that having someone be brave enough to be silly about it all meant a lot. I was tired of people walking on eggshells. I was tired of people changing how they acted. Best friends make fun of each other. Its what you do with the people you love. So don’t be afraid to laugh. Every moment where a young cancer patient can just feel normal is precious. Normality involves silliness. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/indiangiver Amanda Mae Viers

    Life affirming.

  • steph

    beautiful.  I had a friend get diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma and 3-5 months to live this summer. It was unbelievably hard because she told me a month into her illness so we were looking at 2-4 months and her decline was so drastic. She didn’t try to fight it because of previous immune problems that she had so we just tried to make her last couple of months as enjoyable as possible. I didn’t always know what to say or do, and it was so hard seeing her in pain (she couldn’t have medicine either because of an allergy as well). So naturally, we spent a lot of time eating weed gummy bears. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/ubeda Joant Ubeda

    Simply beautiful.

  • Anonymous
  • macgyver51

    I’m pretty critical of most pieces here, and were this about something else I’d probably criticize. Thing is, I’ve been there and it sucks. We may not use the same language but the fact is, a situation like this calls for immaturity. It calls for laughing and crying, and like you said, knowing who you are in the situation. You are her friend, and you love her. I can get behind that anytime.

  • http://www.myheartandmyskull.tumblr.com Lauren

    Fantastic!  Thanks for this.  

    Lots of these things can be applied to other health problems too… cancer is a fairly visible one, but I have friends with transplants and other chronic health conditions and sometimes this can be even harder when the condition isn’t well known.

    In ways it’s harder in ways to navigate the waters of healing and illness as a 20-something.  Most of our peers are on such different wavelengths.
    I would add that saying “let’s just stay in and be grandmas and watch movies and knit” is also a good one to have up your sleeve.  Even if it gets boring to stay in after awhile, pretend like there’s nothing you’d rather do (and deep down you know there isn’t).  Sometimes the idea of getting a drink or going out seems so silly, exhausting, daunting, not worth it.  Refining your definition of recreation time might be comforting to your friend when a lot of people are trying to draw her into social business as usual.

    You hit the nail on the head… tell your friend over and over that you are there no matter what, that you will take care of her, that she is worth it all, that you love helping, that you love her.

  • Hooves

    Good article. Sound Advice. I had a friend die of cancer when we were in high school. All you can really do is make them feel loved and help them live it up while they’re still here.

    Goddamn, Life is such an asshole.

  • http://twitter.com/tannnyaya Tanya Salyers

    This definitely made me tear up, way to take a solid perspective in a really tough situation. 

  • http://bubblegumbasics.blogspot.com/ Mikaela Kaimo

    Fighting back tears. I hope that the only person I know who gets cancer is me, because I wouldn’t be able to handle seeing my loved ones struggle with that.

  • http://bubblegumbasics.blogspot.com/ Mikaela Kaimo

    Fighting back tears. I hope that the only person I know who gets cancer is me, because I wouldn’t be able to handle seeing my loved ones struggle with that.

  • http://twitter.com/JustGeeee Geleen Faye Gallego

    I once experienced what it felt like having a friend with cancer or should I say kinda. That went on for several months, I mean going to school and meeting him and the freaking thought that one day he’ll be gone. That kills me too. I cried a lot of tears and even planned a surprise party for him. It just turned out that everything was a big lie. As in the whole scenario was a lie. It just hurt a lot that he did that to us, who treats him like a brother. Of course he has his reasons, he better keep them.

    Makes me wonder how can some people be able to joke about this serious stuff???

    Nice article though. :)

  • Yup

    I’m a 22 year old survivor, and I couldn’t agree more

  • http://twitter.com/kassienicolejoy Kassie Rehorn

    This made me tear up, it was beautifully written and so absolutely honest and true.  This time last year my little brother, grandma, and one of my best friends were all diagnosed with cancer. Watching their fight from three different perspectives, and being close to all of them and experiencing it from the viewpoint of sister, granddaughter, and best friend was incredibly hard; but my hardships were nothing compared to theirs. They are the three strongest people I know.  Anyone fighting cancer, whether their outlook be sunny or negative is a hero.  Nobody asks for cancer, and being in a position where you either decide to fight or die is a position no person should ever have to be subjected to.  My best friend was healed forever in Heaven in February 2011.  Some people may say that she “lost” her battle, but I know with all my heart that she may have lost her life, but she won the battle.  Her bravery, compassion, and selflessness throughout her life are a testament to that.  She said we must never let cancer win, no matter if it claims the lives of the ones we love. We have to always fight back against it, do things to raise awareness, and never back down against this ugly disease.    Thank you for writing this. 
    (ps. we drank a lot of orange soda during her chemo. for some reason it was the only thing she wanted to drink, and she couldn’t eat. we laughed when i would sneak in cases of orange crush into her hospital room so she could drink it when they would let her have liquids. at her celebration of life, we all made a toast with orange soda and released balloons. and there was always the occasional weird craving she would have for foods she used to despise. The middle of the night trips I’d take to get her these things and the talks we’d have over our snacks are things i will never forget)

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