1.'I can't stop crying for you'
When Gwen, who's in her 50s, was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine scan last January, she found telling her friends one of the hardest parts of having the illness because she didn't want to worry them:
'You realise that it's as much a shock for them as it is for you. But it's a stressful time for you, not only because of the treatment, but also because you have to reassure other people and that can be hard. You worry about being a burden.'
Obviously it's upsetting when you find out someone you love is sick, but it's important not to overshadow your loved one's emotional journey. People with cancer often feel they have to hold it together for those around them, but it's vital that they take care of themselves, first and foremost.
2. Nothing at all
Yes, it's hard to know what to say when you find out someone has cancer, but not getting in touch because you're embarrassed about saying the wrong thing can be extremely upsetting for your friend. Gwen says:
'The best thing you can do is not leave it too long before you get in touch. And I quite understand that it's tricky, but if you're a friend, just get in touch to say "I've heard your news. Thinking of you" and take it from there.'
And remember to keep texting or sending letters and emails. Your friend has enough on their plate, so it's important you're the one who makes an effort with communication.
Charlotte from Horsham says:
'If you don't know what to say, then say just that. The best thing a friend said to me following my diagnosis was, "I don't know what to say, so I can I just hug you instead?" So we hugged on my doorstep. It was just what I needed.'
Chris, who lives in London, says:
'Most people find talking about cancer very difficult and understandably so. But for fear of saying the wrong thing they say nothing, and communication stops. This is extremely upsetting, so if you're not sure what to say, just say hello, but don't be a stranger!'
3. 'You're so brave'
Cancer is often associated with warrior language. It's described as 'a battle' that needs to be 'fought' or 'won'. For some people, these words can make them feel more in control of their experience. But if someone's having a bad day and doesn't feel like fighting, they can end up feeling guilty for their vulnerabilities Charlotte says:
'I'm not really brave. I'm just doing what I need to do to live, and see my children grow. You would do the same.'
4. 'I know someone who had cancer and they're fine now'
It's tempting to share positive stories about people you know who have had similar illnesses, but everyone's cancer is different and no two patients have the same experience. Gwen says:
'Even though they were only trying to help and make me feel better, I found it unhelpful because cancer is a personal thing. It's your own journey. It's going to take you to certain places and not necessarily the same places as the people they're discussing. Who's to know my journey would be the same as theirs?'
5. 'Let me know if there's anything I can do'
Cancer is stressful enough without having to think up ways in which your friends and family can help you out. Gwen says:
'If you're having to think of ways in which people can help, then you're probably not going to end up asking them. It's meant well, I'm sure, but it doesn't help, does it? It means they're shifting the onus on to you to help.'
She says she was lucky because her friends knew exactly what would be helpful, without having to ask. They realised she'd be tired after treatment, and they would help out by making dinner or cleaning the house, or doing a big shop. They took care of a lot of the boring but necessary tasks that can seem exhausting to someone going through treatment. Joanna from Southwater says:
'When I was diagnosed, the thought of cooking made me want to cry. I was so tired and the smell made me want to be sick. A friend brought over some meals she had made. She put them all in my freezer and then when I wanted something to eat, I just had to defrost and reheat. Amazingly
Thinking of specific things that will make things easier for your friend will be gratefully received.
6. 'Why aren't you talking about it?'
Your friend is probably craving normality and just wants to go back to the relationship you had before their illness. Sometimes they would simply rather talk about anything else.
Gwen says the most helpful friends were those who let her talk about her illness when she wanted to. But most importantly, they didn't put any pressure on her to chat about it when she didn't want to. Conversations about the weather and new haircuts were a welcome respite from tales of chemo and surgery. She says:
'What's been stripped of you is your normality. But my friends and family would allow me to feel normal. If I wanted to discuss my fears, they'd let me do that. But if I said "Oh, I don't want to talk about it today, shall we just go out for a walk?" Then they'd allow that to happen. Analysing the whole thing all the time can be very wearying.
After a while, I realised I had to set boundaries and say "Look, I just don't fancy talking about it today."'