Supporting a loved one with cancer
Simple and practical tips to show you care
1 February 2023
Finding out that someone you love has cancer can be emotional, stressful, and confusing. While everyone processes the news in different ways, it’s common to feel overwhelmed and unsure of what’s ahead. And while it’s natural to want to help, knowing what to do (especially if you’re worried about overstepping boundaries) can be a challenge.
The good news is that there are many ways to show your love and care, without causing embarrassment or additional stress to your loved one. Here are some simple and practical tips to help.
Make time to call and check in with your loved one. Ask if it’s okay for you to call or visit and make it clear that it’s perfectly fine for them to say no if they’re not feeling up to it. Don’t let the diagnosis dominate every conversation. A light conversation about something other than illness can be just what’s needed during a tough day and be a welcome break or diversion from the daily reality of living with cancer.
Keep your relationship normal
A cancer diagnosis can feel like it’s taking over a person’s life and identity, so it’s important to keep things normal as much as possible. Treat your loved one the same way you always have – don’t let the condition affect your relationship. And have fun, laughter can be the best medicine!
One of the best ways to support your loved one is by really listening to them. Let them share their experiences and confide in you. You’re not expected to have the answers (that’s what the experts are for), just listen to what they’re going through and how they’re feeling. It’s important to accept sadness – don’t avoid or ignore uncomfortable feelings or topics but be honest. Say “I don’t know what to say” rather than avoiding the subject. And always get permission from them before giving advice or asking questions.
The mental and physical stress of cancer treatment can be exhausting so encourage your loved one to ask for and accept help from others. Help with even small tasks like running errands, making dinner, helping with childcare, doing chores around the house, or taking care of a pet can be an enormous support.
Treatment – whether it’s surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy – can absorb a huge amount of time and energy so even small things can help. A cancer diagnosis impacts the whole family so you can help to avoid carer burnout by being an additional support. If you’re offering your help, it’s important to be reliable. And remember, it’s okay for your loved one to say no.
Be a treatment ‘buddy’
Long hospital visits are common – waiting to see the doctor, having tests and screenings, and receiving treatment can all take time. Being there as a treatment buddy can take the loneliness and boredom out of these visits. You can also provide a chauffeur service to and from appointments if your loved one doesn’t feel up to driving. Another helpful way to support them is by taking notes and asking questions at appointments (with their permission) – there’s often a lot of information to take in, which can be overwhelming to process and remember.
Research and educate yourself about their condition. You’re not their specialist but it can help to prepare you for the care and support they may need. Understanding potential symptoms, treatments, and side effects will mean you’re better equipped to support your loved one through what’s to come.
Make (flexible!) plans
Planning and booking fun or relaxing activities will give your loved one something to look forward to. A thing they enjoyed doing before their diagnosis is just as likely to help ease their tension and anxiety now – like going to the movies, meeting with friends for coffee, a favourite hobby or pastime. Offer to help them to keep enjoying these things. But remember to be flexible! Make sure your plans are easy to change, just in case your loved one needs to cancel or reschedule.
Let them know they’re not alone
There are lots of ways to show your love and support following a cancer diagnosis. Remember you’re not expected to have any answers, just be there for your loved one. The important thing is to follow-through on your commitment – whatever you’re offering, be reliable.
Not sure what to say? That’s to be expected, and you can be open with your loved one about this. The main thing is to pay attention to cues from them, including how much or how little they want to talk about their diagnosis.
Some things you might consider saying include:
- I’m so sorry you’re going through this
- If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen
- What are the next steps?
- How can I help?
- I’m here for you
Valion Health supports eligible Teachers Health members through the Cancer Support Program.