How to Support Someone with Cancer
Finding out that a friend or relative has cancer can be devastating. Most people want to know what they can do to help, what they can do to lift the burden of the person suffering from cancer and how they should show their support and love. It’s difficult to understand what that person might be thinking or feeling, but there are plenty of ways you can show your support and make this difficult time a little bit easier. Here’s how to support someone with cancer:
1. Ask before dropping by.
When my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer, people from our church started stopping by randomly. Their intentions were great. They were dropping off food and they were willing to run errands, but they often showed up just as my aunt had finally fallen asleep, after struggling for hours with nausea from the chemotherapy. While seeing our friends often cheered her up, there were simply some days she was simply too tired to have anyone extra in the house, and she was often embarrassed by her appearance and the state of the house when they did come by. Cancer and the side effects of its treatments are unpredictable. Before dropping by, call and ask if now is a good time.
2. Volunteer to be the contact for other friends.
There are going to be a lot of people that want to hear about the status of the patient. A great way to keep everyone informed without tiring out the person with cancer is to volunteer to be the point of contact for updates. (Before volunteering your services, have a conversation with cancer patient about this first.) Generally, though, people going through treatment like having a spokesperson. Instead of everyone visiting or calling the individual with cancer, inquiring how they are and asking for treatment updates, having a spokesperson can help. When there is an update, be the mouthpiece, letting everyone know so the person with cancer does not constantly have to be answering phone calls and updating everyone about the situation.
3. Offer to take care of household tasks.
It’s difficult to ask for help, but it’s easy to offer it. The person is already probably feeling a loss of control with their diagnosis and may be reluctant to give up control of other areas of their lives, unless you step forward and volunteer to take care of them. Whether they need someone to babysit (both children and pets), someone to grocery shop, to do their laundry, to clean their home, these are all relatively small tasks that can become monumental for someone with cancer and that can easily be taken off of their hands by you.
4. Just listen.
This is an extremely stressful time for the person and for their family. Sometimes, they won’t need someone to run to the store for them. Sometimes, they will just need someone to sit on the couch with them and listen to what is going on. They will want someone to commiserate with them about how busy their doctor is or about how exhausting the treatments are. Whether you have firsthand knowledge of these things or not, you can still be a listening ear.
5. Understand that their illness is their own.
You might know someone else with the same type of cancer. You might even have an intimate knowledge of this other person’s experience with the disease. Relating all of this information back is probably not going to help. This is especially true when it comes to aggressive and deadly cancers. It was never helpful for my aunt to hear, “My mother had stage three breast cancer and she was perfectly fine!” As a nurse herself, she knew all too well how the same illness can be drastically different in two separate people. The same illness is not going to act the same way in two different bodies, and relating about how someone else who had the same disease lived through it might make the person with cancer only feel depressed about their own chances.
6. Reconsider bringing around a casserole.
The thought really does count, but it’s important to know that many people who are battling cancer are likely not going to be able to eat what you bring by. Their stomachs are nauseated from treatment, their doctor might have put them on a very specific diet, and patients, especially those going through chemo or radiation therapy might struggle to eat in general. Unless you tell the person what you are going to make and verify it is okay, it might be better to just not bring gifts of food. Food cravings can also be fleeting, so if you’re on the way over and want to bring something, call and ask if they are craving anything right now that you can bring on your way if you want to bring something over.
7. Remember the family, too.
While this illness is obviously hardest on the person who is actually battling it, it is also difficult for the family members of the person struggling with cancer. A great way to support someone with cancer is to help support their caregivers and family, too. These people are going to be stressed out. Taking some of the work off their plate will make a difference. Simple gestures like being a nonjudgmental, listening ear, running an errand or bringing over a snack or a meal can be a great way to support caregivers of the person with cancer.
8. Don’t force anything on your friend or loved one.
One of the biggest mistakes you could make would be to force them to talk about something they are not ready to talk about or do something they are not ready to do. Take your cues from them. While some people might want to talk about the cancer, others might have had enough of talking about it and would much prefer to talk about literally anything else.
Supporting someone with cancer is a grand act of kindness and compassion. While some cancer patients drive to and from treatment, never miss a day of work and continue to express gratitude for life, most people going through cancer treatment are open to a little bit of extra support. Sometimes people aren’t great at asking for help and other people don’t know how. If you want to support someone with cancer, tell them how you would like to help and have a conversation about it.