When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer it’s a shock to you as well as them. It’s normal to want to reach out and offer support, but you might wonder how best to offer support.
Going through cancer treatment and treatment recovery can be a long road. You can contribute to the best outcome for your loved one by offering support that is unique to them. Here are some ideas of what you can say and do to be helpful and show your support.
What to say to a loved one going through cancer
At first, you’ll both be dealing with the shock of the news. This is a good time to listen and be open and sensitive to how they are feeling. Let them know you’re there for them. Having you as part of their support system will help.
Every person with cancer has a different experience. You may know someone who’s had the same type of cancer, but keep in mind that each individual’s experience is different. Try not to assume how they might be feeling. Be mindful of their mood and willing to meet them where they’re at – they may feel happy one day and sad the next.
Remember that they’re still just like you. They might not want to talk or think about their cancer or treatment all the time. Have a normal conversation about everyday things and keep your sense of humour alive. Sharing a joke might be the thing that brightens their day.
If your friend or loved one doesn’t want to talk about their cancer, respect their need for privacy or to have some quiet time.
Cancer is an emotional journey
When dealing with something serious, feeling emotional is normal. You might find that their mood changes from one moment to the next. This is a normal response. Be willing to sit with them or give them space to process as they need. There are a whole range of emotions that they might experience including:
It’s most helpful to meet the person where they are in each moment. Try not to make any of their feelings “bad” but to give them space to feel and express their range of feelings as they come up.
Offering emotional support
Many cancer treatment centers offer counselling and mental health support for the patient and their caretakers. Take advantage of this support early on to build a relationship with the counsellor and can have their support throughout the journey.
Research shows that emotional support from family and friends can greatly improve the quality of life of someone with cancer.
It’s common to be afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone with cancer. The best thing you can do is be open, honest and show your concern for their wellbeing. Here are some tips that might help you.
- Admit to feeling awkward – it acknowledges the situation rather than pretending it’s not happening.
- Offer hugs – sometimes caring physical touch goes a long way when you don’t have the words.
- Let them know you’re thinking of them – send a card, flowers, or give them a call just because.
- Let them know that if they want to talk you’ll be there to listen – then make sure you’re available.
- Respect their need for privacy. Supporting someone from afar if that’s their wish is still helpful.
- Be supportive throughout the whole diagnosis – at the beginning, during and after treatment.
- Tell them they’re doing a good job at dealing with a hard thing.
- Joke or laugh with them when it seems appropriate.
- Keep your relationship as normal and as balanced as possible.
- Be understanding if connecting with them looks different than it used to.
Try not to:
- Say you know how they feel – we can’t ever know exactly how someone with cancer feels.
- Say ‘be strong’ or ‘be positive’ – it puts pressure on them to behave a certain way.
- Take things personally if they’re in a mood, tired, or don’t want to talk.
- Offer advice – unless they ask for it, try not to share things that you’ve heard even if you’re trying to help.
- Compare their situation to somebody else you know, each person’s experience with cancer is unique.
How to be a good listener
One of your greatest strengths as a support person is your listening. Anyone who’s going through something with their health will want to feel heard. Often it’s difficult to express their feelings since there can be so many and they change from day to day.
A good listener aims to be aware of someone’s thoughts and feelings as much as they can. You don’t need to have all the answers. Know that hearing a person’s concerns or worries can be hugely helpful because you’re giving them the chance to get their feelings out.
A good listener tunes into the other person and meets them in the present moment. Listening is an important part of providing emotional support.
Here are some tips to help you listen well:
- Eliminate distractions (turn off the TV, your devices, etc.)
- Try to keep the setting private so they feel comfortable opening up
- Maintain eye contact, but be relaxed about it
- Let the person with cancer lead the conversation and try not to interrupt
- Concentrate on what they are saying
- If emotions come up, say how you feel, this can prevent any awkwardness.
- If they cry, don’t try to cheer them up or get them to stop. Let them know it’s ok to be sad and that it’s a normal response to what’s going on.
- A friendly touch of the hand can help but if they pull away give them space.
- Try not to give advice unless they have asked for it.
- Don’t use humour unless they have used it themselves.
- Silences are OK, don’t feel like you have to fill them with words. Your presence is what matters most.
- Be calm and avoid getting worked up, this can be unsettling for them.
Other ways to offer support
In addition to supporting your loved one emotionally, they’ll likely need practical support too. Check in and ask if there is anything specific that they need help with. Let them know you’re available to help them in that way as well.
Some people may not want help or they may find it difficult to accept. They might want to remain as independent as possible. Try not to take this personally. Respect their decision by letting them lead, but let them know that you’re available at any time if they change their mind.
Since it may be difficult for them to ask for help, you could offer to help again in the future, or set up a rotation so that you and friends can take it in turns to help out. It’s important to respect your own boundaries as well, so be sure that you’re able to commit to any offers of help that you make.
Practical ways you can help include:
- Make meals that they can put in the freezer
- Offer to help out around their house – gardening, mow the lawn, shovel the driveway, etc.
- Drive them to the hospital for blood tests and appointments
- Help with house cleaning or laundry
- Take any pets for a walk or to the vet
- Offer to do their shopping while you’re out for your own
- Offer to take the children to and from school, or to watch them for a day so the adults can rest
- Offer to make phone calls or do any research they might need for supplies or purchases
- Bring over lunch and stay for a chat
- Run any errands that they might need doing
- Ask before you visit, in case they are feeling too unwell
Going through cancer is different for everyone and we all need different levels of support. How you show up for your loved one will depend on what they need and their comfort level. Let them lead and make yourself available in the ways that will be helpful to them. Remember that your loving presence and listening ear can go a long way.