Rules of Engagement: Why Your Loved One With Cancer May Need Some Space

Posted: October 18, 2021







Mental Health

Getting a cold shoulder after a friend’s cancer diagnosis? It’s not you: it’s cancer. But sometimes, it is you. 

Let’s be honest: all relationships have boundaries, and someone with a cancer diagnosis isn’t any different. When you’re out of the loop, it’s tempting to hop your way into it — but often at a cost. 

We’ve talked about understanding the mindset of someone in cancer treatment, how to respectfully support a friend who just received a diagnosis, and what not to say to someone with cancer. Let’s dig into more about the actual rules of engagement. 

Should you even be reaching out to someone newly diagnosed with cancer?

This is one of the most complicated questions to digest when you hear someone just received a cancer diagnosis. The weight of the news or shift in relational dynamics can feel heavy. But that doesn’t mean you’re holding the baton for reaching out first (especially if you heard the news through the grapevine).

A litmus test: Ignore the cancer diagnosis for a sec (I know, I know — hard).  Ask yourself if it’d be natural for you to reach out to this person directly about other personal news, like a new job or baby. If not, opt for going through another person to show your support (like their family member or closer friend).

Put yourself in their shoes. What would you want to be shared (or not) with your extended network, with or without your permission? For example, it may be okay to share ways to support financially (e.g., GoFundMe page) but not okay to spread updates on the latest scan results. 

Cancer is life-changing, but it’s also someone’s health information.

Medical staff members protect information about their patients as much as possible. There could be emotional, psychological, and financial harm and implications to patients when sensitive, confidential health data gets into the wrong hands. 

You wouldn’t pry into your coworker’s details about their IBS or latest eczema flare-up. Cancer is a health situation, and asking about someone else’s personal health information isn’t great. Don’t pry for details if not offered.

In short: it’s not about you.

In ”Why Didn’t My Friend Tell Me About Her Cancer Diagnosis?” by The New York Times, a reader asks why a seemingly close friend hadn’t told her about a cancer diagnosis (as the title implies). The author has a spot-on response: 

“For many of us, serious diagnoses are like slaps across the face: surprising, painful, overwhelming, infuriating. And people have all kinds of reasons for sharing or withholding information about their health. Don’t take her decision as a referendum on your friendship. (It isn’t!) More important, respect her privacy. This crisis is hers to manage.” - Philip Galanes, The New York Times

Key words: This crisis is hers to manage. It’s not about you.

Supporter: we know that’s tough to hear, especially when you only mean well. Let’s talk about what is acceptable, encouraged, and helpful when someone you know has a cancer diagnosis. 

4 Rules of Engagement for Your Friend with Cancer

Every thriver has unique preferences for communication and support. Here are some (mostly) universal rules to follow, even though you probably will mess up at some point (no pressure, bud!).

  1. Ask them how they’d like to be communicated with to avoid overstepping. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

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