Supporting a Loved One With Cancer

August 15, 2023

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When a friend or family member has cancer, it’s easy to feel helpless. Knowing what to say or do is hard. Not being able to look into the future is scary.

But supporting a loved one with cancer helps their physical and emotional well-being. Staying connected and caring during this time is an important part of their recovery.

Studies show active support makes a real difference to people with cancer. It helps them adjust to changes in their lives and have a more positive outlook. People who have the strong backing of loved ones report a better quality of life.

Read on to learn how to be there for those you care about during cancer treatment.

Seven tips for helping your loved one on a cancer journey

Whether you’re a friend, relative or partner, there are many ways you can offer support.

Call or write. This is especially important for friends and relatives who don’t live nearby. Something as simple as a call or text can remind your loved one that they aren’t alone. Send brief notes or texts or make short calls. Share silly cards, photos, kids’ drawings or anything that might brighten your loved one’s day. Ask questions and return messages right away.

Be understanding. Listen to your loved one and provide emotional support through your presence and touch. Be flexible, and understand that sometimes pride or the need for independence can impact a person’s ability to accept help when it’s offered.

Give useful presents. The occasional gift can be a welcome distraction from everything else your loved one is dealing with. Choose small, practical things that are useful during treatment — such as pajamas, stamped postcards or a heating pad. But don’t overlook items that will bring joy. A funny movie, silly socks or favorite foods can be very welcome too. Keep in mind advice and comparisons are not useful gifts. “There are many variables that impact the recommended treatment and side effects,” explains Dorothea Braxton, Adventist Health Portland’s cancer care navigator. “Comparisons might only serve to frighten and intimidate a new cancer patient.”

Help them feel good. Men and women with cancer often feel self-conscious about the physical changes caused by treatment. Encourage your loved one to explore solutions for coping. But don’t insist they always stay chipper. “Cancer patients are usually annoyed when their support person says, ‘Stay positive,’” Dorothea explains. “Patients should be encouraged to feel all of their feelings.”

Respect their decisions. Cancer treatment is full of choices. No matter your role, remember that the person with cancer makes the decisions. This includes deciding how friends and family can help.

Be present for medical matters. Volunteer to take your loved one to medical appointments. Having someone else in the room to take notes can be valuable. It might also be useful for someone else to keep a calendar of appointments. “Ask your loved one how you can make their life easier,” Dorothea suggests. “It is encouraging to the patient when their support person shows interest in their cancer. Even when you do not know what to say you can show supportive interest.”

Take care of yourself. This is especially important if you’re the spouse or primary caregiver. No matter how much you love them, being the main pillar of support for someone undergoing cancer treatment can be emotionally taxing. Plan a few moments each day to do something for yourself. It might be as simple as walking around the block. Other ideas like joining a support group or seeing a professional counselor can be invaluable for maintaining your mental health during this time.

Read more about being a thoughtful caregiver: Stroke Recovery: What You and Your Caregivers Can Expect After Returning Home.

The most important support

No one expects you to be a cancer expert. Most of all, your loved one just needs you to be there. That might mean offering a listening ear or honoring their treatment decisions. They may need you to take them to appointments, or they may need help with daily tasks and errands.

“Supporting a loved one who has cancer may include simply being available for them in their own specified way,” Dorothea says. “Ask them, ‘How can I be there for you?’”