How to Be There For a Friend Who Is Going Through an Incurable Medical Condition

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve slowly begun to realize that life will sometimes throw you or your loved ones a curveball. While some things can easily be managed, situations like a friend getting an incurable medical condition can alter the reality you both knew as “normal.”

Although it’s incredibly hard to watch a friend enter this new chapter in their lives, this new perspective they’ve been given is one they never asked for — but that doesn’t mean things have to change completely. Even though you may be afraid to overstep their boundaries or cause them to think about their pain by inquiring how they’re feeling, your support is vital to your loved one’s mental and physical health.

“Connection is a huge psychological protective factor, as the mind and body are connected. A large portion of those with chronic illness struggle with what we call adjustment disorder with depressed mood or adjustment disorder with anxious mood,” clinical psychologist Kim Chronister said. “This means that a physical condition (a major life situation) is negatively affecting [their] mental health [and] those with depression are often isolated, which deepens the depression. Research shows that increasing connection with others is a significant way to lift mood during medically challenging times especially.”

However, if you’re not sure how to show support in the right way, don’t worry. I connected with Chronister to find out how best to show up for a friend who has an incurable medical condition without having to overthink it.


1. Be a reflective listener

Allowing your friend to feel heard is one of the most supportive things you can ever do. Giving them the room to share their story — when they feel comfortable to do so — grants them the freedom to have control over their own narrative and condition. “During this time, think of yourself as a reflective listener,” Chronister says. “Listen as much as possible and reflect back what they are saying to you.”

Example: Friend: I feel agitated all of the time because of the pain. You: It must be aggravating living with that type of pain day and night.”


2. Ask open-ended questions

Becoming curious about what your friend is going through can allow you to show support through a unique lens. It shows your loved one that you’re not afraid to have tough conversations and you want to understand what they’re going through. “You can ask open-ended questions that don’t feel intrusive,” Chronister says.

Example: Tell me how these last few weeks have been. Tell me about your worries. What have been the highs and lows for you lately? The point is the more they feel heard rather than advised, the better.”

However, it’s super important to be mindful of their verbal and nonverbal cues. If they prefer to change the subject at any given time, respect it. Make sure you check in and understand that their reality might be a little different than yours now.


3. Don’t give advice unless they ask for it

“As a psychologist, it’s been apparent how much a medical condition can negatively affect one’s identity and relationships with others,” Chronister explains. “Initially, it’s critical to not give any advice whatsoever (unless, of course, they directly ask for it and even then bring it back to a question directed to them).”

Even if you have a close relationship with this person (or had a similar experience), you don’t want to force them to take your advice or listen to your solutions. Just because it has worked for one person doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for another — and that’s OK! “A person who is dealing with an incurable medical condition (whether it is a chronic pain condition or cancer) does not expect you to have the solution,” Chronister says. Chronic illnesses are unique to each person because of their history, DNA, and thought patterns, and the best way to help them is by asking what they need.


4. Ask to hang out, but have a back-up offer just in case

Take a moment to consider that things might be different between you and your friend now. You might not be able to hang like you used to or see them as often as you like. Try to be patient during this adjustment period — and whatever you do, don’t get upset when plans fall through. Remember that this situation has nothing to do with you and they need your friendship more than ever during this time.

“Do not be offended if they decline, and always have a backup offer since they may turn the first one down,” Chronister says. “Listen closely to what they are comfortable with doing now that their lives have been altered. Be sure to act as you always do so they do not feel you pity them. The only adjustments you need to make now are to be a better listener than you were before and to be reliable. Don’t give up on them, but respect their space if they want it.”


5. Keep track of their upcoming appointments

If, for whatever reason, you can’t be there in person, or you simply want to do more, you can keep track of your friend’s upcoming medical appointments to stay on top of what’s going on in their life. “Put [upcoming appointments] into your calendar to check in with and ask how they went,” Chronister says. “[But] if your friend pushes back, then you’ll know they don’t want to give details, but at least attempt to stay on track with their medical updates.”


6. Be yourself

While it’s important to be mindful of your friend’s medical condition, you don’t want to treat them like a whole different person or a fragile object. Remember that their world has already turned upside down, and your friendship might be the one thing that reminds them that life can be normal and fun. “Refrain from acting too different than you normally would around them,” Chronister says. “Again, more listening and slightly less superficiality are called for, but barring that act the same.”


7. Don’t take things personally

At the end of the day, you don’t want to assume that your friend’s actions or words are a personal attack on you. While it’s not healthy to allow them to treat you poorly, it’s important to be empathetic to how their chronic pain can be affecting their everyday life.  “Don’t take it personally if they are irritable around you. Physical pain is highly correlated with irritability. If they are hostile, obviously take your space, but if you can tolerate their agitation that is ideal,” Chronister says.

Navigating this new world with your friend might take time and patience, but luckily, there are multiple ways to show up for a friend who has an incurable medical condition. As long as you actively listen, don’t assume you know how they feel, and even take the time to research about the illness, everything will be just fine! Even though you may want to try to make them feel better every chance you get, your friend will appreciate you taking the time to be there for them when they need it most.

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  • Emma

    Having a friend who has a chronic illness, learning and understanding how to be there for them was a hard experience. It was an experience in which I had to try and control how I reacted because they did not need me to act weirdly or treat them different. Just being there for them in a time that was difficutl and strange for them was more than enough. Sometimes it is the little things that make a big difference.

  • sandra avis

    I am relatively young, with Stage 4, terminal BC. I say the key is our family mantra- be present and be nimble. Show up…in person or email or text.