Supporting a friend or family member through a cancer diagnosis can be hard. You want to be helpful, supportive, available, etc. but sometimes it’s hard to know how to act. Suddenly, it feels different. Something you used to say to that person, now seems insignificant or foolish or uncomfortable. Many people retreat because of that discomfort they may feel. They pull back because they don’t know what to say.
In having a loved one diagnosed with cancer, we are met with many emotions including a closer glimpse of our own mortality. You may not always know what to say, or what to do, but your presence itself can be comforting. We’ve listed a few ways to support someone going through a cancer diagnosis, treatment regimen, and survivorship.
- Stay in touch. Don’t assume you need to give them space to deal with their new hectic schedule. Try to keep up the same routine you had with that person before (s)he was diagnosed with cancer. But, let your loved one know it’s ok if they don’t feel like talking—you’ll always be there to listen another time.
- Be honest about your emotions. It can be hard to act normal if things don’t feel normal. There will be a few different “new normals” to adjust to over their cancer diagnosis, treatment and for some, the survivorship period. Take time to process your own emotions about your loved one’s cancer diagnosis so you are prepared to focus on your loved one when you are together.
- Make plans, but be flexible. Don’t be afraid to make plans for the future. It’s great to look forward to things. But be flexible. Plans may need to be rescheduled or canceled last minute.
- Offer your help. Don’t just say, “Let me know what I can do to help.” Pick a task that you know they need help with so they can have one less thing to worry about. Offer to bring dinner over once a week. Offer to mow the yard. Offer to pick up groceries. Offer to drive to the hospital. Offer to pick up the kids.
- Help to recognize and respect their boundaries. While you want to make yourself as available as possible, we all need space at one time or another, even in the midst of cancer. Especially if you are close to the person, you may be in the position to help them navigate the help being offered by friends and family.
- Encourage participation in a support group. Support groups are a powerful resource where cancer patients can find common ground with others. A support group is a safe space where your loved one may be able to open up about their own diagnosis because others will share their common experience. Support groups can be for you too! There are also support groups for care providers. These can be excellent resources to help you provide better support to your loved one.
- Bring laughter. In the midst of doctors’ appointments, surgeries and medicines, it feels good to just laugh. Not all of us are jokesters, but a little laughter can lift the spirit, even in the worst of times. After all, laughter is good for the soul.
- Care packages. A short letter, or a small care package can be uplifting and a great way to support a loved one when you can’t be there in person. For loved ones that have to spend a lot of time at the hospital, or are isolated in their own homes, packages with books or magazines, gift cards, blankets, pajamas, sudoku or crosswords or any other personalized gift can be uplifting.
Not all of us are lucky enough to see a loved one through the survivorship phase of cancer, but if you do, remember that things don’t go back to normal for that person. For most survivors, their life is forever a new normal. They will need a different kind of support as they transition “back into life.” It may not be as obvious, but in many cases, this transition can be harder than the cancer treatment phase. Providing support to that person is still important, if not more so.
You don’t always need to know the right thing to say. Just being present for your loved one can make all the difference. There are numerous available resources from books to blogs and beyond that may help. There are many helpful books to explain cancer to a child as well.
"If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else." -Booker T. Washington