How to Help a Loved One Battling Cancer
By Lisa M. Petsche
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When someone you care about is diagnosed with cancer, you may want to reach out to him or her (for simplicity, the latter will be used from here on), but feel unsure of what to say or do. Here is some advice.
- Keep your initial reaction simple and heartfelt — for example, “I’m sorry to hear about your illness,” “I’m here for you” or perhaps even “I’m at a loss for words.”
- Don’t be afraid to share your emotions. Remember, too, that body language — a touch of your hand, pat on the shoulder or hug — can often convey support and caring better than words.
- Educate yourself about your friend or relative’s disease to help you understand the kinds of challenges she faces.
- Bear in mind that cancer affects people physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and that, although there may be similarities, no two people will experience it the same way.
- Allow your friend to express any and all emotions; don’t try to talk her out of them or change the subject because of your discomfort. Also, don’t take bad moods or uncharacteristic behavior, such as withdrawal, personally.
- Recognize and accept that people cope with a serious illness in different ways. Some may alter their priorities and lifestyle, while others may choose to carry on as usual. Some may use humor as a coping mechanism, while others may become more introspective or spiritual.
Keeping in Contact
- Recognize that you may have to make most of the effort in the relationship. Visit, call and send cards or notes.
- Treat the person the same way you always have. Don’t hesitate to smile, laugh or tell a joke.
- Listen non-judgmentally, demonstrate compassion, and don’t give unsolicited advice. Provide words of support and encouragement.
- Encourage your friend to take one day at a time and to trust that she will be able to cope with whatever lies ahead. However, don’t give false reassurances, such as "Everything’s going to be fine."
- Don’t underestimate the distress your friend is experiencing, and don’t discourage tears or urge her to be strong. Don’t try to withhold your own tears, either. They are merely a sign that you care.
- Take your cues from her as to how she wishes to deal with her illness; don’t make assumptions. If you’re unsure, ask whether she would like to talk about her situation, and honor her wishes either way.
- Encourage your friend to practice self-care, getting adequate nutrition, exercise (if appropriate) and sleep, and keeping medical appointments, as well as avoiding unnecessary stress.
- Help a female friend feel good about her appearance. Offer to set her hair or do her nails, or bring her a new accessory, such as a scarf or a piece of costume jewelry.
- Surprise your friend with a gift, such as flowers or a favorite movie, magazine or food treat.
- Focus on the present and how you can make your time together enjoyable. Don’t be reluctant to make plans, though; it’s good for her to have things to look forward to.
- Invite your friend on an outing, keeping in mind her energy limitations. Ideas include a trip to a coffee shop, favorite store or park, eating out at a favorite restaurant, or taking a drive in the country or the old neighborhood. If she accepts an invitation, agree upon the condition that she may cancel at the last minute if she doesn’t feel well enough.
- Assist your friend in practical ways, to allow her to concentrate on her treatment – which may have significant side effects - and ensure needed rest. Walk her dog, run errands, perform household chores such as vacuuming and laundering, or drive her to and from appointments.
- Don’t merely let your friend know you’re available if she needs help; make concrete offers — for example, “I’m going to the grocery store. What can I get you?” Or simply go ahead and do things like deliver a casserole or mow her lawn. Offer to get information about community resources that may be of assistance.
- Keep in mind that emotional support and your time are the two most valuable gifts you can give someone who is grappling with a life-threatening illness.
One Final Tip
- Find an outlet for your own emotions, whether it’s talking to someone who’s a good listener, writing in a journal, or attending a support group. You need to take care of yourself, too.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.