10 Lessons on Being a Girlfriend to Someone Going Through Cancer

By , SparkPeople Blogger

founder Debba Haupert made her debut as a guest blogger on the dailySpark last month, when she wrote about the importance of forging friendships, in honor of National Women’s Friendship Day! Now that girlfriend guru is back, with plenty of good advice culled from interviews and chats with her own girlfriends.

You probably know a woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. There are 2 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. alone. It is the most common cancer in women in the U.S. and, until a cure is found, the survivors and all their friends will continue to deal with the challenges, fear, sadness and grief that this evil disease can bring.

What cancer also brings is often a confusion or hesitation in how to be a friend to a girlfriend dealing with it. We’re scared for our friend, many of us fear our own mortality, and many of us just don’t know what to say. So, we do two things:

  • We talk about it--and hope we don’t say the wrong thing.
  • We don’t talk about it--and risk losing our friendships out of fear or uncertainty.

In honor and observation of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here are 10 lessons on being a girlfriend to someone going through cancer, chemotherapy and the incredible stress, worry, fear and emotion it involves.

The lessons come from friends of mine who were kind enough to share their honest opinions and insights. They have undergone treatment for breast cancer and are (very thankfully) living with vitality and determination--which is wonderful. However, this is a very difficult topic for many people, and every woman faces cancer differently, so please take into account that one woman’s needs can differ from another’s.

Here’s how to be a good girlfriend during a difficult time:

  1. Provide encouragement: Sometimes a woman is looking for a friend simply to affirm that she is doing all the right things and that she’s going to be OK. Remind her of her strengths and victories, uphold her decisions and encourage her to keep going.

  2. Listen: Listen without judgment, whenever it’s needed. Avoid easy answers or telling her to buck up and be strong. There are times when cancer can be overwhelming, and she needs to talk about it. Be the person she needs--and simply listen. Let her process her thoughts aloud, listen and care.

  3. Offer help: Instead of saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” ask precisely what you can do. Ask your friend if she’d like you to bring dinner, do laundry, babysit or go grocery shopping for her. Offer to help by doing Internet research on treatments and remedies. Identify what needs to be done and ask if you can help her by doing it.

  4. Cheer her up: Do things that really help and buoy spirits. Knit or buy her a pair of fuzzy pink socks. Give her an inspiring book. Celebrate the end of each treatment with champagne. Give her a gift certificate for a massage or a manicure. Help her deal with the hair loss--take her wig shopping, buy a hat or buff for her or, as my girlfriend Penny did, shave your head in solidarity. (See the photo!)

  5. Be understanding: Plato said “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Your girlfriend is going to have good and bad days, so be patient on those days when she may say something she might not mean or not mean it the way it sounded. She is fighting a life-changing battle and deserves your patience, grace and understanding. Don’t take things personally… cut your girlfriend some slack.

  6. Help her communicate: She may not want to talk about cancer all the time. While she’ll appreciate your interest in how she’s doing, it can be wearing to go through all the details again and again. Help her set up a blog or start a chain phone list for updates.

  7. Laughter is the best medicine: Lend her your romantic comedy movies or books, or take her to a chick flick--just make sure there are no cancer storylines. Send her funny cards or wrap up silly presents so she has fun gifts to open. Be flexible with your time--and jump at the chance to be with her when she’s feeling good. Back off when she cancels because she’s feeling not so good. Take off time from work if needed (and if you can) to be with her.

  8. Offer inspiration: We all need inspiration, reassurance and optimism. Share stories of people who have gone through the same thing and are doing well years later. It’s even better if you can connect your friend with those people so they can talk to them. Never talk about people who have died of cancer or are not doing well.

  9. Friendship endurance: Be in this friendship for the long haul. There are going to be good and bad days, weeks, and months. Be her friend no matter what, and even when the treatments seem to go on forever--that simply means that she’s still your girlfriend. Continue to be there for her.

  10. Celebrate life: Look for opportunities to be together, to share memories and moments to remember, go on an adventure or explore together, laugh together and cry together when needed. See the beauty in each day as her friend and let her know that. Celebrate each day of friendship.

And, in observation of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, remember that early detection is the best protection so practice self-exams and mammograms for your own health. Girlfriends need to remind each other that as well.

We each get to choose the way we respond to life. In the case of having a friend with cancer, we need to be sensitive to her needs and to be available to listen and help her. Yes, we may feel scared, worried or helpless, but this is our time to be a friend. Step up if/when needed and keep your friend laughing, feeling loved and assured that you’ll be there for her. That’s what girlfriends do.

is the online community for women based on inspiration, appreciation and celebration of female friendship.
Founded by Debba Haupert in 2006, Girlfriendology inspires women to make new female acquaintances, spend time with their girlfriends, and appreciate those friendships that are vital to women’s health and happiness. Girlfriendology.com features inspiring women in semi-weekly podcasts, contests to share girlfriend stories and provides videos, shopping, reviews, blogs and more.

Photos: courtesy of Debba Haupert

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YMWONG22 3/25/2020
Great article. Report
CECELW 11/8/2019
My daughter is a cancer survivor. She would love this article. Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
Thanks Report
Thanks Report
All of these tips are great. The thing I valued the most was my friend who simply allowed me to be me without judgment. On the days I needed to cry because I was tired of being strong for my son, other family, and friends, I knew I could cry with her. I would then wipe my tears, and face the next challenge. For those fighting a disease or chronic illness, remember that the world did not stop when you became ill, and give grace to your family and friends as they try to walk between the two worlds. Report
all this would really help, good tips! Report
great article Report
Thank you for this advice, I am in need of it. Report
Great article, thank you. Breast cancer may be common, but it isn't the only type of cancer that we might face. I had thyroid cancer (surviving nicely since 1983) but my sister in law died of lung cancer (she smoked) at age 43, around 1988, and my best friend died of cervical cancer (a rare aggressive type) in 1996, at age 39. I miss them both very much, even now. Their deaths left a hole in my world.

I was blessed to spend significant time with my best friend as she battled the last few months of her life, and these tips are absolutely true. The blog brought back memories of this difficult , sad but also special time. We talked, we laughed, we sat quietly. I listened as the pain and illness caused despair in her and when she talked about not wanting to be strong anymore but just to let go, I supported her. She sang happy birthday to me on one of my visits and made sure her husband had a cake for me. What a wonderful memory.

Peace. Report
my sister Gwen had brain cancer in 1999 she is no longer with us i am a huge supporter of relay for life Report
My best friend died of cancer two years ago , I supported her , and I miss her so much !! Report
I lived this with my mother over 30 years ago - I was 17 years old when she was given 3-6 months to live. She wanted to keep it a secret, I don't know why! Very few people knew - Mom didn't even know *I* knew for over a year. She survived a total of 27 months, fighting all the way.
Finally I went against my father's insistance, and told Mom I knew what was going on. I'm SO grateful to have had those last nine months with her in full knowledge - we truly became the best of friends. This was back in the mid-70's - WHY was cancer considered such a dirty word back then? When I was diagnosed in 1992, I wasn't ashamed! What a difference almost 20 years makes...

MY #1 help? LAUGHTER, LAUGHTER, LAUGHTER! (Plus, being honest with my children.)

Thank you for this informative advice! Report
Thanks for the good advice. My freind Renee is going a tough time. She is such a fighter, has tremendous faith, and tries to be so strong. I need to remember to ask her more specifically what she may need. I will let her no about the website too. Report
Thanks for the great tips on being a supportive friend of those going through cancer. It makes me sad that I didn't know what to do for a friend who died of pancreatic cancer several years ago. She lived far away from me, and I feel like I let her down since I wasn't there for her at all while she suffered this horrible disease. I hope that I'm a better friend the next time I'm faced with this situation. This article will help. I'm putting it on my favorites so I'll have access to it. Thank you! Report
Thanks Debba for such a great article. I am a cancer survivor of 7 months tomorrow and I wish my family and friends would have seen this article. I am raising one of my grandsons who is only two and I had so many worries and fears and felt like I had no one to talk to. My husband (who is wonderful) lost his mother to cancer when he was young so this also scared him and he didn't want to talk about it. I felt so alone. I had a couple of girlfriends who did the numer 3--do you need anything??? When I told them maybe dinner would help out-they never even came by.
My mom who was scared and worried, lives on the east coast. She didn't have the money to fly to AZ to help me (she also had her own problems-2 heart surgeries). She jumped at the chance when my husband paid for her flight. She came and helped with suppers, babysitting, and cleaning along with my 2 daughters. These three women are my best friends but they still didn't like me talking about the cancer because I think it scared them more than it did me.
Your blog offers so many great ways to be a friend. I'm sure everyone appreciates it. THANKS Report
I lost my best friend to breast cancer. I found out that she wanted to talk about what was happing to her and wanted to know if I had any questions. She was only 54. I felt so helpless not being able to do any thing for her , We talked about everything. But I still miss her so much. She was my best friend. Report
I just found out my brother has liver cancer. I am there for him anytime. Report
My best friend Tami was diagnosed with malignant malenoma 10 years ago with 3 children 1, 3, and 5 and I made the decision to move out of my apartment and move in while she went through the surgeries, aggressive treatments and to be honest care for her kids after she passed on as the chnaces of survival were very slim.
The year I lived and experienced cancer was a life changing event that I will never forget and I feel blessed that I experienced it. I was allowed to be there all night after the first of many surgeries and sat with her everyday while the interferon was piped through her body to speaking for her when she had no voice.
Ten years later Tami is still alive!!! Yay..... I believe it has alot to do with God, attitude and the special angels that I gave her with prayers tucked inside them to empower them.
Cancer is tough and an ugly disease, that year Tami and I bonded and we have something that is so special... words just can't expalin it. Report
Thank you for sharing this article with us, Debra...... I wish I would of had you at my side. I am a cancer survivor 5 times..... The last time I had cancer was over 5 yrs ago. So that makes me a 5yr survivor... ...All 3 times it caught me off guard too and the last cancer I had was on my thyroid. ....The doctor caught it while it was small and did not spread. It has been really hard to go through it 3 times in the early stages and God told me it was not time for me to go yet. .....

My sister-in-law has bone cancer, she is bed ridden now and takes about 13 different kinds of medication daily for pain ..... My brother came down about 3 weeks ago..... He looked so tired from working too many hours at work to make ends meet...... He's in pain too, but b/c to see his wife this way..... He does provide a lot for her and times he's with her being in so much pain...... Whenever they go out, she is confined to a wheelchair.... When I met her over 10yrs ago, she looked so healthy that nothing could take her down..... She does not get out that much anymore and she is only 55yr/old.
Debra, thank you for sharing this article and all us cancer survivor thank you....... Report
Many thanks, Debra. This came at the time I needed it most! Meri Report
Good article. Thanks for sharing. Report
As a breast cancer survivor, I found it important to accept that I had the disease and try to find the (dark) humor in the situation. That made people around me more comfortable. If they could see I was wearing the funky hats or the t-shirts that said "I'm too sexy for my hair" it made them more comfortable in approaching me.

Please visit www.thebreastcancersite.com . It's only a click a day, and they provide free mammograms! Report
I'm a breast cancer and Non-Hodkins lymphoma survivor. The key word here is survivor. Since those diseases, I've become a marathon runner, triathlete and aqua aerobics instructor. Celebrate each day. It is a gift and should not be wasted. Report
I am blessed each day with my Mom she is a 10 year survivor. Thanks for this article. Report
Having just lost a friend to Inflammatory Breast Cancer, I think this article is timely.
I have been wearing the same scrub jacket to work all month in support of Breast Cancer awareness. I had 5 friends with breast cancer. Now the one, 45, with 3 little kids has gone to be with the Lord just the 24th. and buried the 29th. So very hard, and sad. She fought hard and long...4 years from diagnosis....God bless all of you who deal on a daily basis with this disease. Report
As a breast cancer survivor I love this article. One thing I would like to add, if you have small children or grandchildren be prepared if they see you with no hair. We had told our grandchildren I was bald since I did not like to wear a wig. It was still a big shock when I took my scarf off and they saw it the first time. My daughter ( who is a lymphoma survivor) had bought some childrens tatoos and ask the girls if they wanted to help decorate Nana's head. We had so much fun with this and after that it was no big deal that I had no hair. Just remember that this affects the children in your life as well and find a way to help them adjust also. Report
This is truly a very helpful article & glad Debba wrote it. This article too, can be utilized as a tool with anyone else who have other illnesses.
My husband's aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago & while she is several hundred miles away, we would call her. On our vacation, earlier this year we stopped by to visit on our way to the airport & take her out to lunch. We had a few hours to visit, got the grand tour of the convent estate that she resided at & learned a lot about the history behind it. She was so happy that day with the visit & sharing the history with us.
In my earlier days as a nurse, my mother's friend & co worker had a mastectomy at the hospital I worked at. I would go in to see her & always saved a break for when she would wake up in the night & sit with my mom's friend or help her with anything she needed & always stopped in before I left for home to see if there was anything I could do or get her.
A few years ago now, my husband & I got a call that my FIL had suffered a heart attack & stroke on Halloween. We were told by his brother that if we wanted to see him alive to come up for Thanksgiving. We did go up for the holiday & spent every day with him at the rehab he was at & had Dinner at my brother in laws house taking dad on leave that day. A week later on his birthday, Dec 2 he was given the news he had terminal lung cancer that spread & only 2 weeks left to live. A few days later, we got news that he was in and out of conciousness at my brother in laws home under hospice care. Driving through the night, we arrived at 4am. He had opened his eyes for each of us when we spoke to him then slipped back again. My oldest son could not make the trip with us. so we called him explaining what was going on & to just talk to his grandfather even though he wouldnt respond. Again his eyes opened & I noticed a slight smile before he closed his eyes again. By 9am, he had died in my arms while I was helping the hospice nurse. I feel in those last moments that our whole family being there,& the phone call from his grandson meant a lot to him even though he could not verbalize it, his other non verbal responses spoke volumes. He was not alone & that is important that he didnt feel that aloneness.
I felt sharing these stories may help others to not be afraid to take the time, & to spend time with people no matter the illness. As difficult as some situations are, all it takes is a little bit of your time, a warm smile & some laughter & some love. Report
This is good article. A friend ust shared with me in confidence that she has cancer. I immediatly had questions of what can I do while at the same time, fearing that I would do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing. Very helpful article and I will begin with these suggestions. Thank you. Report
Thanks so much for the article. My Sister had brain cancer and My Mother had cancer also. Mom spent 40 years in the Nursing profession. It's so nice to see some of her words spoken to me in Print here. Friends just want to be love and for you just to be there for them and give them the space they need to gather themselves and regroup to move forward to tackle this journey.
Thanks again..
When your friends become sick, the last thing they want you to do if feel sorry for them. They really just want your friendship and for you to be there for them.

Lisa Report
What a great article! Thanks. Report
This is a great article. As someone currently undergoing chemo for breast cancer, I can relate to all of the suggestions. I have one more to ad - be willing to back off if your friend needs it. Sometimes all of the suggestions to help or be around can be overwhelming for the person, and they might not feel right saying "no." But don't ignore her - instead, give her space when she needs it. Report
Thank you for the great article. Sometimes it's hard to know the right things to say. Sometimes just being there for a friend is enough. Report
I think we all need to take care of ourselves each day. Obesity is directly related to Cancer, according to research. Report
Great article.

One of my best friends passed away due to breast cancer, and we spent every minute we could together, she even moved in with me and my husband.
She used to wear a wig when undergoing chemo and hated it, so I told her to get rid of it, and I shaved my head too.

My mother is now undergoing chemo again for the second time in 5 years, unfortunately we are not close and she doesn't want to see me, so I just have to have updates through my sisters. Report
What a great article Report
My fiance' Joseph had brain cancer - he passed away in Jan 08. I did everything this article says - great article! Report
What a MARVELOUS article! This is not applicable to just breast cancer, but to other illnesses also. My mother always said, "Don't ask what you can do. Just appear at the door and say I am here to help. Where can I start?" Is there any way we can save this writing to our files? (I'm not real computer savvy.) Report
My sister has aggressive breast cancer. After chemo and radiation ended 6 weeks ago, she thought she was in the clear.They didn't explain the disease in details. She just got test results back that showed her markers are up and there is a spot on her spleen. She's in shock all over again that it came back so quick. And now has to deal with the fact that at some point in the next five years her body will give out and she will die of cancer. I live in TN, she lives in Washington. Out of 10 other siblings, shes's the one I truly love to spend time with. Theres not much money, but would like some long distant ideas. I am saving continental Airline one pass points for hotel business trips, hoping to surprise her one day. Does anyone know how this might progress, with it coming back so soon? Is that normal or a bad sign. I am wondering if I should borrow money and go now or if I have some time. She refuses radiation but will do chemo again. Her hair hasn't even grown back. How can it happen so quickly? Report
This is the most useful blog I have ever read!
Thank you Report
This is a very "on time article" for me as my sister-in-law who is going through a rough time with her chemotherapy. I can tell as I listen to her talk that she needs a listening ear. This article offers many good suggestions some of which I hadn't thought about. Report
I donate my hair every time it gets long enough. I did it for my girlfriend when she said NO, I don't want you to shave your head. So the first two times I sent it to Locks for Love, then found out that they sometimes sell the hair!!! So now I only send to Cancer for Kids. Thank you Debba Haupert and Stepfanie Romine and to the massage therapist, swdesertlover, You are awsome too!!!! I will pass this article to my friends. It makes me so glad I stayed on Sparkin' this afternoon when I am supposed to be studying for my course. Thanks again. Report
This reminds me of a friend I lost to Leukemia. I went to see her 3 days before we lost her. She was propped up in bed and started coughing. I went over and started rubbing her back. She started to cry and told mr that other than those that came to help her with bathing and pain shots, no one had touched her. She thought people thought they might 'Catch it' from just touching her. So throw in touching and hugging. They need it. Report
This brought back the memories of my sisters battle till we lost her. We became best friends and couldn't spend enough time together. I love her and miss her so much. Report
Great article! I am living with breast cancer right now; I was first diagnosed in May 2003, and in April 2007, found out it returned to my bones.

I really appreciate the good friends I have to talk to, both online and offline. Especially those who just listen, and let my vent and have a good cry when I need it. I try to be positive, but it's not possible to feel that way 100% of the time, cancer is a very scary disease, even if you have it under control. Report
My best friend had it also and had to have both removed. She is a very beautiful woman and was devistated. She had implants so no one would notice, and has had major problems with those as well and pain from them. I wish all women luck on not getting it and if you do my prayers are with you. There are a lot of women who have beat it so dont let it get you down..... Report
One of the best articles I ahve read.
I have really learned from this article. yet i hope to never have Cancer or have a close g/f with cancer. But now I know what to do if this should ahppen.

As I read through this, I realized that my best friend had done everything perfectly for me as I went through my cancer recently...or as much as she could from a couple thousand miles away! Even so, I'm going to send this to her so she can see what a wonderful friend she is. Thanks for posting this! Report