Tough Times – Illness


So your friend is sick. It’s scary and uncomfortable and sad and probably requires a long haul of treatments. It may be a chronic condition that requires a lifetime of adjustments. And you have no idea how to help.

For me, Kelsey, this is really personal. I spent much of 2012 in recovery from surgery and being treated with chemo and radiation for breast cancer. Anxiety is still with me today. But my friends and family helped me through, and, with the help of other people who shared their experiences, we now have some solid tips for you, too. But this issue is vast, and reading our book will give you much better sense of what you can do.


  • Read Empathy Basics on our site and read more in our book. It’s a lot about how to listen.
  • Ask how your friend is doing, then take the cue from her if she is devastated or feeling optimistic. Follow their lead.
  • If someone tells you the news via email, phone message, text, whatever, you must respond IMMEDIATELY. If you don’t hear back, follow up a couple of days later.
  • But don’t push for a call back or response. Your friend may feel overwhelmed. If your friend is posting about it on Facebook, and it’s been years since you’ve had a conversation, go ahead and post something. It can feel awkward to post, but your friend is putting themselves out there. Don’t leave them hanging.
  • If you’re close, expect your life to change for a few months. That means occasional visits, meal drop offs, help with errands, trips to the doctor.

NO, NO, NO!!

  • Don’t OVER react with uber tragic response until you know more.
  • Unless your friend is asking for your informed opinion, don’t minimize- like, “I’m sure you have nothing to worry about”. In most cases your job is not to minimize but to hear your friend’s worry.
  • “Just be positive!” No, no, no. Unless your friend is a reader of Louise Hays How You Can Heal Your Life and a lover of crystals, this kind of comment feels AWFUL.
  • Don’t avoid the person. If you are friends and live nearby, there is no good excuse not to come by.
  • Avoid all stories of death or devastating debilitation by the same disease. Seems logical, but this news can bring out the crazies and we blurt out all kinds of stuff. 


  • There’s a lot of listening needed here, so read the Empathy Basics on this site.
  • For people who have a lot of contact, ask how they are doing occasionally. But share your own stuff too!. Most people with illness respect other people’s problems, too. You don’t have to have cancer to unload about a bad boss.
  • If you are close and someone feels comfortable with you being in “their” space then clean the house, car, and offer child care. If you aren’t that close, pay for a service coupon. Coworkers can pool some funds together for services like cooking, cleaning, baby sitting, collectively organize donations or a run for a charity, etc.
  • Even when the immediate trauma of the news is over, people have lingering effects from illness, or facing new life adjustments and loss of former selves with a chronic condition. We all like to think that once the surgery has happened or the chemo treatments are done that it’s all finished. But for A LOT of folks, post illness has its own malaise. No need to dwell, but continue to ask how someone is doing with it once in a while.

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