Understanding Friends With Cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

I recently had a conversation with someone whose good friend was diagnosed with cancer. She hoped that the cancer wouldn’t change their friendship, but it did. The change, though, was temporary. As she told me, “My friend had to go through a process to come to terms with her cancer – I just didn’t understand that at first.”

When people are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, they aren’t sure what they should think and they’re even less sure what they should say to family and friends. It’s a period of emotional churning more than of clear insight. Most people need time to sort things out in their own minds before discussing it with anyone outside of their immediate families.

But friends often want to know some of the specifics of the patient’s condition and the proposed treatment. Imagine having a long-time friend that you’ve shared everything with. All of sudden, she has cancer and she’s not talking. It’s easy to feel left out.

As this person told me, “I wondered if she was telling other people about her cancer, but not me. I felt out of the loop.”

Several weeks later, though, this person realized that, “This has to be about her, not about me.” She was feeling left out because she was focusing on her own needs and not on the needs of the person with cancer. Once this realization hit, she was able to relax and let her friend’s internal process take its natural course.

She decided to be a silent friend, to listen, to be available, to be supportive, but not to pry. She left flowers on her doorstop, sent cards and remained a steady presence. In turn, her friend called on her more and more because she knew that she wouldn’t get questions that she didn’t want to answer.

This is how Rachel Naomi Remen described this gift of listening, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”

And gentle silence often leads to honest conversations when the time is right. When her friend with cancer was ready to talk, the floodgates opened wide.

There was so much that her friend had to say, but it just wasn’t time until that particular moment.

Cancer can and does change friendships, but the best friendships are resilient and will re-emerge after a period of adjustment. To be a true friend is to respect the privacy, process and timetable of the person with cancer. When in doubt, just listen with an open heart.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal. Original Publication Date: August 14, 2010

Click here to see all of Bob’s columns


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