How to Support a Family Member or Friend With Cancer

Being There for a Friend With Cancer

woman giving comfort to another woman
Getty/E+/Juan Monino.

Emotional support is an integral component in any relationship. Supporting a loved one with cancer is an invaluable gift that will help them through a difficult time. Any effort you make to reach out and offer support will be met with much appreciation. Still, there are a few things to keep in mind that will help you in supporting your loved one that are truly helpful and will help you avoid adding additional stress to the situation.

Listen

Oftentimes the best thing you can do for your friend of family member with cancer is to be a good listener. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to say the right thing or offer your opinion, but try to refrain from doing this, especially to someone who is newly diagnosed.

Your loved one is experiencing a lot of overwhelming feelings and may simply need to vent. If this is what your friend or family member needs, they'll be incredibly grateful if you can be the one who simply lends a listening ear.

Avoid Focusing on an Answer

When we're presented with a problem, our natural inclination is to want to solve it. When we learn about a difficult situation that a loved one is facing, our first tendency may be to try to find the solution to the problem. With cancer, there is no one right solution.

Think of cancer diagnosis and treatment as a journey. Your loved one's needs will likely change throughout their journey.

By avoiding problem-solving mode, you will be more open and understanding in responding to their needs.

Offer Information If Asked, but Don't Overdo It

One invaluable way of supporting a loved one with cancer is to research their type of cancer. Delve into the Internet's wealth of reputable websites or contact an agency like the American Cancer Society and ask that information be mailed to you.

You can also seek out colon cancer books your loved one may find helpful when they are ready to read up.

Avoid dropping a giant stack of papers on the kitchen table. Try to organize the information from the least complex - like basic information about the type of cancer - to the most complex - what type of clinical trials or experimental therapies might be available, for example. If you have the time, you could even organize the materials in a binder with labeled tabs for topic areas.

Don't pressure your loved one to read whatever you present them with immediately. You could say something like, “I know this looks like a lot of information, but you can file it away for now and get to it when you’re ready.” You could also read the material yourself and discuss it with your loved one.

Offer Assistance With Everyday Tasks

Asking for help can feel like an admission of failure. Trying to figure out how to ask for help and what help is needed can be tough, too. Avoid saying something open-ended, like, "Please let me know if there's anything I can do to help." Ease the burden for your loved one by throwing out specific things you can do to help.

Instead, say, "I'd love to help out. Can I stop by your house next Tuesday afternoon to mow your lawn?" "Can I take you to your appointment next Friday?" "Would you like me to pick up your kids from soccer practice?" "If you give me a list, I’d be happy to stop by the grocery store to pick up a few necessities for you."

This type of help is very much appreciated. The key is to offer help by providing concrete examples.

Remember: It’s Not About You

Sometimes when we learn of a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, we have to sort through our own conflicting emotions. Keep in mind that this person’s cancer diagnosis is not about you. And if you're supporting someone who's in active cancer treatment, be flexible and understanding. What your loved one needs today might be completely different from what they'll need tomorrow.

Don't get caught up in the changes, because changes are likely going to occur. Just do your best to support your loved one and keep the focus on caring for them.

Be Supportive, but Don't Catastrophize

When you first learn of another person's cancer diagnosis, it's very easy to into saying, "Oh no, that's so horrible," over and over again. Avoid this type of catastrophizing. Sometimes it's hard to know what to say, but a simple, "I don't know what to say, but I'm very sorry you're going through this," can work wonders.

Allow for Silence

Most people are uncomfortable with silence. This is especially true when talking about a sensitive topic such as cancer. But filling every lull in the conversation with idle chatter can be overwhelming for your loved one, and constantly trying to say the right thing can be emotionally exhausting for you, too. Respect that silence is okay, and that sitting with a supportive friend in silence may be what your loved one needs.

Avoid Comparison Stories

People love comparison stories. While one-upping a story can be a humorous way to connect with people about less serious topics, it’s usually not helpful when you’re talking to someone with cancer. Comparison stories offer a way to express sympathy and understanding in these types of situations, but your loved one probably won't find your tales very useful coping mechanisms.

This person is dealing with a very difficult diagnosis, and mentioning how your Aunt Joan had the same type of cancer and did “so well” probably isn’t helpful or appreciated. Even worse? Talking about others who have died of cancer. This is not appropriate.

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