Life Advice



Annie's Mailbox: Clueless on Cancer Etiquette

Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar on

Dear Annie: I am 28 years old, and one of my friends recently was diagnosed with cancer. While I'm thankful to have known several cancer survivors, I am now at an age where some of my childhood playmates and current peers might be diagnosed with this disease in the near future.

How can I best provide support for cancer victims in an appropriate manner? I've tried to treat my friend the same as always, but I'm not sure that's always the right response. I couldn't ignore his hair loss after chemotherapy, but I also wasn't comfortable teasing him about it as I might have in other circumstances. I did some research and learned that losing hair could be a good sign that the chemo is working, but I wasn't sure how to express that.

I know cancer victims often need help around the house or with errands, so I've made myself available to get groceries, but I'm not sure if it's enough or too much. How do I know if he wants to discuss the cancer and is waiting for me to say something? Or maybe he is tired of people asking him questions.

Do you have any resources you could offer to help friends of those with cancer in navigating this disease? I'd greatly appreciate it if there was a list of do's and don'ts. -- Clueless on Cancer Etiquette

Dear Clueless: You sound like a wonderful, compassionate friend. The American Cancer Society ( offers a helpful list that includes:

Take your cues from the person with cancer. Some people are very private, while others will openly talk about their illness. Don't feel that cancer is the only topic of conversation you can have. Talk about other things, too. Keep your relationship as normal and balanced as possible. Include your friend in usual projects or social events. Let him be the one to tell you if the commitment is too much to manage. Expect your friend to have good days and bad, emotionally and physically.

Respect his decision about how the cancer will be treated, even if you disagree. Listen without always feeling that you have to respond. Greater patience and compassion are called for during times like these. Offer to help in concrete, specific ways. Don't be afraid to hug or touch your friend if that was a part of your friendship before the illness.


Don't offer advice unless it is asked for. Don't be judgmental. It's normal for the person with cancer to be quieter than usual, to need time alone, and to be angry at times. But you do not need to put up with serious displays of temper or mood swings, or accept disruptive or abusive behavior just because someone is ill. Try not to be patronizing or use phrases such as, "I can imagine how you feel," because unless you have had cancer, you cannot know how he feels.

Here are some additional suggestions: Send cards and emails to let him know you are thinking of him, but make sure he knows you don't expect a reply. Phone calls are OK, but a ringing phone can also wake him. If he has a partner, lend your support and attention to that person, as well. If he has kids, offer to take them out so he can discuss his condition openly with doctors or partners. Offer to inform friends and relatives of the news.

Don't ask for too much detail or explanation. Don't tell him about other people who have had his type of cancer. Don't urge him to "stay positive" or tell him "it will be fine." That can frustrate his need to express himself honestly. Don't offer to bring books about cancer unless he specifically asks for them.

Try to simply be yourself when you talk to your friend. What matters is that you show you care by being available, offering support and listening.


"Annie's Mailbox" is written by Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar. This column was originally published in 2017. To find out more about Classic Annie's Mailbox and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit Creators Syndicate at



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