I think I have the credentials on this one. As a cancer survivor myself and someone who tries hard to be a decent friend, I do have some opinions here.
Here is the scenario, you have just received the call, e-mail or candygram telling you a dear friend has the big C. Now what?
Rule #1 - Do not say "I'm sorry". That is what you say when someone dies. Appropriate remarks include things like "that sucks" or "tell me how is it going" or even "WTF." But not "I'm sorry." As I said to folks on a couple of occasions, I have cancer, I am not dead.
Rule #2 - Make concrete offers of help. What most people say to a friend is "call me if there is anything I can do." And then your friend never calls. I think this is because dealing with cancer is so overwhelming that your friend can't even figure out what they need. So take the time to think about what you know about your friend's life and get specific. Tack on to that generic offer concrete things like walking the dog, driving the middle-schooler to soccer practice, or a dinner delivery. Be really creative, as you cannot offend.
Rule #3 - Keep your opinions about your friend's treatment choices to yourself. Nowadays the level of cancer treatment is uniformly high throughout the country. Plus, for most cancers, there is never a single guaranteed right choice of treatment. That means that your friend has undoubtedly agonized over treatment decisions and made them carefully. Support that! I actually had someone question my choice of oncologist and suggest that I might die if I did not go to the big name oncologist she was touting. Are you kidding me?. Please!!
Rule #4 - Be fun and bring on the joy.. Honestly, particularly during the active phases of treatment, your friend will want life to go on as normally as possible. They will not want to be treated like they are sick or fragile. In fact one of the gifts of having cancer is the reminder that each day is precious. So living matters! Take your friend for a massage or to see a movie. Send goofy YouTube videos. Don't wait to be asked, just show up a trashy novel you are prepared to read aloud. Did I say go shoe shopping? You get my drift.
Rule #5 - Shut up and listen. What I learned was that some of my friends felt so bad that I had cancer and they didn't (there is a name for this, it is called survivorship guilt) that they would babble at me. It was such a gift when someone would say "what do you want to talk about?" And sometimes silence can be an even bigger gift. Just remember - now more than ever - it is not about you.
And when all else fails tell someone they look great bald..........