Supporting a Loved One With Cancer

15 Ways You Can Help Your Loved One With Cancer

Close up of couple holding hands on coastline.
How can you help and support a loved one who has cancer?. Dougal Waters/Getty Images

How can you best support a loved one with lung cancer?

For someone living with cancer, the support of family and friends is critical in their journey. Yet, a diagnosis of cancer often catches everyone by surprise and shifts the roles we are accustomed to playing. Those who have not personally struggled with cancer, though well meaning, are unable to understand completely what their loved one is going through emotionally and physically.

As you face this new territory, what are some tips you can use to help support your loved one through their often lonely journey?

15 Ways to Help Your Friends and Loved Ones with Cancer

1. Consciously Listen

Simply listening to someone with cancer may sound easy, but is often times surprisingly hard. We want to make things better. We want to fix things. But a listening ear is often what “helps” the most. Let your loved one express his feelings, even if those feelings make you uncomfortable. You can be fairly certain that if your loved one brings up a difficult topic, such as dying, he have been thinking about it. Allow him the opportunity to have the comfort of sharing. Don’t judge, don’t interrupt, and listen with your eyes and body, not only your ears.

2. Deal With Your Own Feelings First

As caregivers, we are faced with our own set of difficult emotions and fears. What will happen to my loved one?

Will he have pain? Will he live? What will happen to me? How will my life change? Try to face your own fears first, so you are truly able to listen attentively.  You may also be struggling with grief.  If you find yourself feeling alone in that difficult spot between trying to maintain hope and grieving the future, make sure to learn more about anticipatory grief.

3. Say “I Love You” Often

No matter how much your actions express your love, they are not a substitute for hearing it. Affirm him. Praise his efforts. Even if the only thing he can do after a round of chemotherapy is brush his teeth, let him know he is special and valued.

4. Step Into Their Shoes

As you continue to read these tips, it can be helpful to try to imagine yourself in your loved one's shoes.  What does it really feel like to have cancer?  Of course, you can't completely understand the pain and fears and emotional roller coaster of cancer by just imagining it, but imagining yourself facing cancer may give you some insight into concepts you may not otherwise understand. 

5. Lend a Hand

For those with cancer, life goes on despite running for treatment and coping with annoying side effects like cancer-related fatigue. Bills accumulate. Dust gathers. Something as simple as offering to help clean house for an hour is often deeply appreciated.  Don't wait for your loved one to ask for help.

“Can I come over Wednesday at 2 PM and wash a few windows?”  An important point here is to offer help and make it specific

6. Go With Them to Appointments

Attending appointments with your loved one can express your caring in many ways. Hospitals and clinics can be frightening places and waiting can be excruciating. Bring a notepad. Ask questions. Take notes. But make sure to allow your loved one to make her own decisions.

7. Add a Touch of Humor

Humor can be the best medicine. Be sensitive to the times that your loved one needs to express grief, but be ready to laugh and smile with them as well.

8. Respect Their Need to Be Alone

Sometimes our loved ones with cancer claim they want to be alone so they don’t bother us, but other times, they truly want to be alone. Monitor other visitors as well. Does your loved one feel that she has to entertain them, but does not want to offend them and ask them to go? If so, gently let these other visitors know when your loved one appears tired and thank them for visiting.

9. Be a Gatherer – Of Information

Having information appears to ease some of the anxiety those with cancer face, and at times, can even make a difference in outcomes. Learn how to research your loved one's disease online, ask your cancer center for information, take notes, and ask questions at doctors’ appointments.

10. Think About What to Say to Your Loved One

People with cancer are often hurt by comments others make.  Certainly, it's better to say something than to say nothing at all - many people are very hurt that their loved ones stay away not knowing what to say - but take a moment to check out what NOT to say to someone with cancer, according to people who have "been there."

11. Don’t Hide Things From Them or Other Loved Ones

Our loved ones with cancer need an honest assessment of their condition to make decisions that best fit their needs – even if that honesty is painful. Be honest with other family members, and especially children. We want to protect our children from the reality of what their parent or grandparent may be facing, but children often imagine the worst. Even if the prognosis is poor, sharing with children honestly gives them the opportunity to begin their grieving and express their love.

12. Help Them Find Support

No matter how much someone without cancer can empathize, talking to someone facing the same challenges can be invaluable for someone facing cancer. Ask your cancer center for information on in-person support groups Many online support groups are available as well, and carry the advantage of being able to connect to others with cancer and cancer caregivers 24 hours a day. If your loved one is not interested in a support group, check into the matching services provided by organizations such as LUNGevity, in which people with cancer are matched up with others facing the same cancer.

13. Be Willing to Bend

Family members often have many different opinions when a loved one has cancer based on their own life experiences. Friction often develops, and hurt and resentment can follow. Your loved one does not want to be the source of family conflict. Try to hear each other's viewpoints, no matter how dissimilar they may seem. Keep in mind that all of you have a common goal; you all want to support your loved one.

14. Take Care of Yourself

Eating healthy, trying to get enough sleep, and maintaining a balance in your own life will help you provide the support your loved one needs. Check out further tips for cancer family caregivers to nurture yourself as you care for others.

15. What Does Your Loved One Wish You Knew?

A great resource I keep at my bedside is "Let Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know." No matter how hard we try to walk in the shoes of someone with cancer.  it helps to hear the thoughts, desires, and wishes shared by people who have actually walked that difficult road.  And finally, your loved one probably doesn't yet even realize it, but being an advocate for her in her care is totally priceless.  Check out these tips on how to advocate for yourself or a loved one with cancer in order to get the best care possible.


National Cancer Institute. Family Caregivers in Cancer: Roles and Challenges – Health Professional Version (PDQ). Updated 01/21/16.

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