Wednesday 31 May 2023
A new survey has found that 59% of the 250 people with cancer polled said that friends struggled with knowing what to say after a friend was diagnosed.
Our new campaign has shown the effect a cancer diagnosis can have on friendships.
We conducted a survey by OnePoll* which found that 59% of the 250 people living with cancer polled said that friends struggled with knowing what to say after a friend was diagnosed.
In a companion survey of 2,000 people who have a friend with cancer, also carried out by OnePoll*, 59% of people admitted they found it difficult to know what to say when they first found out about their friend's diagnosis, while 9% avoided their friend with cancer after finding out they were diagnosed and 42% said it upset them too much to see them.
We also asked people living with cancer for the top 10 ways people can support their friends with cancer:
The research has been released as part of a new campaign to raise awareness of how important friendships are when living with cancer – and that friends of people with cancer also need support.
We have centres across the UK that offer free support and advice to anyone living with cancer as well as offering their psychological and peer support to family and friends.
Barry Harvey, 49, from Croydon has kidney cancer is supported by Maggie’s at the Royal Marsden.
He talks about how to adapt your friendships after a cancer diagnosis saying:
"Since my diagnosis I have struggled with going out in the evenings and I can’t drink alcohol, which was difficult as all our going out was based around alcohol.
So now, once a month, me and some friends all go out for a breakfast on Sunday morning, and it's the most wonderful thing. It also gives my friends the opportunity to ask questions - but really, we just talk about football!"
Jo Saunders-Betts, 57, from Surrey who has secondary breast cancer commented:
"I had a large group of peripheral friends; some of those fell by the wayside. It's very sad but some people just don't know what to say to someone with cancer, so they avoid you.
I don't think badly of them. I think they just need to be communicated with in a different way.
I feel responsible, as a cancer patient, to handle other people's feelings sensitively depending on the individual.
Their fears and knowledge of cancer, its treatments and side-effects are unknown. You have to be quite careful and non-judgemental."
Christine Hewitt, 61, from Croydon who has bowel cancer said:
"Sometimes you have to translate the information that you're given from the medical terminology for your friends.
For example, I've told friends that there's no evidence of disease, and they say ‘hooray and party time’, but actually, no, it doesn't mean that, it means that they just can't see it, there is currently no evidence of cancer needing immediate treatment.
It's still there, I'm still a person living with cancer and the thought that it could pop up tomorrow in another organ. It really helps me if people understand that."
We also enlisted the support of comedian Janey Godley who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021, author and broadcaster Janet Ellis who lost her husband John to cancer in 2020, author of Reconstruction: how to rebuild your body, mind & life after breast cancer Rosamund Dean who has been supported by Maggie’s through her cancer diagnosis, and writer and Maggie’s Ambassador Paul Mayhew-Archer who lost his mother to cancer to offer their advice and experience of friendships and cancer.
"Don’t send flowers, unless there is someone else in the house who will reliably put them in a vase, keep the water topped up, and throw them out when they die. More practical gifts are amazingly thoughtful. I couldn’t stomach the go-to gifts of wine or cakes during chemo but loved long walks with friends."
Janey says she still wants to know the gossip. "Just because I’ve got cancer doesn’t mean that I don’t want to hear that ‘that wee wumman in the close next door won’t wash her landing’.
I want the small stuff. I want to hear what my friends are annoyed about, what’s going on in their lives. I don’t want to just talk about what’s happening to me because I’ve got cancer."
Janet agrees with Janey: "If your relationship with your friend is usually a jokey one, stay in that lane. If they want to steer the conversation to deeper things, so be it - but you don’t need to lead them there."
Paul encapsulates the idea that it's good to laugh. He retold his experience of supporting a friend with cancer:
"I started sending him links to comedy clips on YouTube and entire comedy episodes on iPlayer...And when he thanked me, it was as if my own sight was restored as I remembered something that Maggie’s never forgets – how good it is to laugh."
Janey also thinks friends of people with cancer need to be persistent:
"I want my friends to persist that they see me. If I say I don’t want to go for coffee, well, ask me when I can? Ask what day can we do it then? Be honest with me - ask me if I’m really tired, or am I just hiding in my bed that day? Keep contacting me and persist that I see you. I need that."
Rosamund adds the importance of friends just listening:
"Sometimes you just need someone to hear how sad and scared you are, so be there with sympathy and a hug."
Janet and Paul both say one of the worst things you can say to a friend with cancer is ‘let me know if I can help’.
"The dreaded ‘let me know if I can help’ is best avoided. Try ‘is there anything you’re finding hard at the moment?’ This could mean anything from getting to school pick-up in time, to returning library books or even making a difficult phone call. Be prepared to step in."
Paul also said on his friend’s list of things to avoid was the dreaded ‘just checking-in, hope all going well’ which made his friend feel as if they were on ‘someone’s to-do list!’.
Janet also advised not to be ‘tempted to add your own or other’s experiences into the mix’. She explained that "cancer is personal. It affects everyone uniquely, beyond the predictable medical trajectory."
Ahead of Carers Week 2023 (w/c June 5) our Chief Executive, Dame Laura Lee said:
"Cancer is one of the hardest things a person can experience, and we know how important friendships are in helping people to cope practically and emotionally.
It can be devastating for people to lose friends because they don’t know how to help or what to say.
We support all people living with cancer and we are here to help people be the best friends they can be, while also supporting them to manage their own anxiety."
BBC Scotland broadcaster Stephen Jardine understands what it is like to have a close friend with cancer. Here he explains how difficult it can be to know what to say and do to be the best friend possible.
"It is impossible to put yourself in the position of someone with cancer so firstly you have to accept that you can’t and not try and equate their experience with any of your own.
It is hard to know what to say or what to do for the best, but perhaps the most important lesson for me is to ask what the person wants rather than make assumptions. Ask them if they want to talk about their cancer or not or ask them to tell you what they genuinely want to do.
Often the little things can be the biggest help….sending regular messages, perhaps a book or a small gift they might like and just trying to keep the friendship the way it always has been."
We're have expert staff in our centres available to help you.
Research used must state as a reference:
Survey 1: OnePoll surveyed 250 respondents from 17-28 February 2023. The survey was conducted online using panel members who are credited to participate in surveys. Respondents who are currently living with cancer were targeted using screening questions and profile data in order to ensure the correct demographic was achieved.
Survey 2: OnePoll surveyed 2,000 UK adults from 6-19 April 2023. The survey was conducted online using panel members who are credited to participate in surveys. Respondents who currently have or have had a friend with cancer were targeted using screening questions and profile data in order to ensure the correct demographic was achieved.
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