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How Can Family Members and Friends Help A Person Who is Newly Diagnosed with Cancer?

Life is forever altered for someone the instant they are medically diagnosed with cancer. Immediately, a million questions will race through the individual’s mind, and they will experience a whole gamut of emotions. Not only must they try to understand the vast information on the disease itself, they have to also make sense of, and deal with, all the investigations and treatments that are to follow.  There could be physical discomforts, financial burdens, social and mental stresses. What is even more challenging is the realization that there are many unknowns while coping with the loss of control.

As a family member or friend of this individual, how do we support and show our love for them? Sometimes, certain words and advice that we offer actually may not add value to the situation; our good intentions could have the reverse effect and make things more difficult. Our instinctive solution modes often do not offer any meaningful comfort.

In such situations, seeking more answers and possibly looking for a second opinion may be useful. What is not helpful are baseless denials or simply questioning the accuracy of diagnosis.    

Offering phrases to someone with cancer like, “Do not worry, everything will be alright!” do not provide much comfort for an individual facing multiple uncertainties. Providing anecdotes of cases that we have heard about are also not helpful. The cancer of every individual is never exactly the same as someone else’s. The cancer needs to be contextualized based on the individual and the severity at the time of diagnosis. Such platitudes often bring on more anxiety and confusion.

Here are our suggested ways to provide support and love to someone who has just received a cancer diagnosis:

What You Can Say

  1. Express compassion and empathy. What is empathy? It is the connection with people to let them know that they are not alone in their struggle. You try to feel with the person, instead of feeling bad for the person.

  2. Let them know that you are grateful that they are sharing this with you. ​​

Some examples:

“I don’t even know what to say. Thank you for sharing this with me.”

“I cannot imagine what you are going through.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

What You Can Do

  1. Listening should take precedence over talking. The family member or friend should provide a listening ear for the individual to express his/her feelings, concerns and fears.

  2. For close family members, aim to understand the needs and goals of the individual that you are caring for. Very often we feel the burden of trying to take control of the situation and do the decision making. In reality, attempts to help the individual understand their own condition and articulate their own wishes and goals go much further. Autonomy gives rise to a more fulfilling cancer treatment journey.

  3. Think about what you can do daily to ease the burdens of everyday living for the individual. This may include providing meals, taking care of chores or caring for family members.

  4. Do not underestimate the power of just eye contact and touch in providing a peaceful and quiet condition for the individual to grieve and come to terms with the situation.


In doing the above, we can provide an environment that is both comforting and nurturing to a loved one whom has been recently diagnosed with cancer.

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