Miss Conduct

A friend shared her cancer diagnosis on Facebook. How can I offer support?

I want to offer support, but don’t want to intrude.

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Recently, a friend’s daughter posted to celebrate her mother’s two-year cancer-free anniversary. Another friend divulged a cancer diagnosis cryptically via Facebook. I commented with support and plan to check in with her in a few weeks as her treatment progresses. It just feels awkward and voyeuristic to learn about these serious events on social media, and I wonder if people who announce there do it to keep it out of the personal realm. I wish to offer support, but not intrude. What to do?

M.S. / North Reading

Do exactly as you are doing! Your instincts appear to be serving you just fine. You’re spooking yourself over Facebook, not a medium in which you feel entirely comfortable or natural, and that’s OK.

Facebook and other social media do have some real advantages for communicating about health problems, though. Online communication doesn’t take the emotional or physical energy of informing people in person or over the phone — and the news all goes out in one go, so Auntie Liz can’t get upset that you told cousin Rick before you told her.


It also allows those receiving it the time to compose a thoughtful reply. The posts can serve as a useful journal for the poster (Facebook’s “On This Day” function has helped more than one of my friends discover a seasonal or anniversary aspect to an ongoing health problem!). You might find that someone in your outer circle of friendly acquaintances has had similar problems and can offer genuine support. And social media can be a lifeline for the housebound. The winter I had a sprained arm and leg, I would have gone mad without Facebook. That’s why people do it, M.S.

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And what they want is what sick friends would generally want. Offer words of support, chicken soup, a ride to chemo, a distracting novel or Netflix recommendation, but no other unsolicited advice whatsoever. Walking the thin line between helping and intruding on a sick friend has always been and will always be a delicate task, social media or no.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology. Send comments to