'My friend has breast cancer - I don't know how to speak to her'

Making them laugh will remind them that they’re not just Cancer Friend now 
Making them laugh will remind them that they’re not just Cancer Friend now  Credit: Barry Falls

Dear A&E,

I haven’t seen my great friend since she’s been diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and I am ashamed to say that I am dreading it. I’m worried that I’ll say the wrong thing and upset her, or cry and make it all about me. What should I do? – Nervous Friend

Dear Nervous Friend,

it would be peculiar if you weren’t panicking. It’s hard not to freak out when you feel as if the entire tone of your friendship has shifted and you don’t want to be found wanting, deploying the terrible head-tilt (universal body language for patronising pity – please can we ban this?), or asking an inappropriate question. Also, how to give support without smothering? What happens if you get it wrong? It’s paralysing stuff. The thing is, your friendship hasn’t utterly shifted, but the circumstances have. 

EMILIE: Obviously you feel as if you’re the only one idiotic enough to be agonising about this, instead of simply morphing into a fully cancer-informed friend. Presumably, part of you secretly wants to hide under a rock – sending out supportive telepathic vibes until the cancer storm has passed. But you won’t. So we asked someone close who is currently receiving treatment about how they want to be treated... Incidentally no one likes the words ‘battling’ or ‘fighting’ when talking about their cancer. They already feel like they have too much to lose. 

ANNABEL: Counterintuitively, don’t hold back on the funny – they need to know that the cancer is not the only thing you see when you look at them. They are still there. Obviously, don’t barrel in like Michael McIntyre, but they still want the laughs, the gossip, the random stuff. Talking to them like they’re made of glass will only make them feel more alienated from their own existence – the normal, everyday existence they are desperately trying to get back to. Making them laugh will remind them that they’re not just Cancer Friend now. 

EMILIE: Also, let them talk about how frightened they are without immediately trying to fix it or shutting them down by saying, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ They’re scared. Hell, you’re scared for them. It is scary. Pretending anything different can be cruel (although unintentionally so) and you don’t know if it’s going to be all right. No one knows. People need to be heard and they want to tell you that it hurts and it frightens and it appals. Their attempt to make sense of their reality is the point. Your reaction is not the point. So don’t panic about it. 

ANNABEL: Practical support is always welcome. There are so many moving parts and feelings that life is suddenly overwhelming. Do they need childcare or a chauffeur or meals or moisturiser or to go wig shopping? Don’t volunteer too much – throwing yourself into something without thinking it through might end up being hurtful rather than helpful when you find that you can’t cope. But if there is something that you are marvellous at, do it, be marvellous. No one likes a martyr, but everyone loves a marvel. 

For more advice, try Maggie’s Centres, oases of cool authority that have experts on call to deal with any questions you might have, as well as support for your friend during her treatment (maggiescentres.org). Also – and this might not be for everyone – it’s worth looking at the Instagram feeds of the likes of Lauren Mahon (@iamlaurenmahon), Alice-May Purkiss (@alicemaypurkiss) and Emma Campbell (@limitless_em), who are busting myths about cancer and defiantly finding new ways and new words to discuss how they feel post-diagnosis, during treatment and in remission. Lauren co-hosts the award-winning podcast You, Me and the Big C, dedicated to changing the conversation around cancer, and GPs have praised it for its impact on the way we talk about the disease.

So, Nervous Friend, we already think you are going to be marvellous because you are bothering to ask the question. Don’t get bogged down in detail. Just be yourself and be kind, that’s all anyone can ask of us and it’s all we can ask of ourselves. 

Next week in Asking for a Friend: 'My wife wants me to have a vasectomy' ...

Do you have a question or dilemma that you’re grappling with? Email Annabel and Emilie on [email protected] All questions are kept anonymous. They are unable to reply to all emails personally.

What advice would you give to someone helping their friend through a cancer diagnosis? Tell us in the comments section below and in the Telegraph Women Facebook Group.