How to support a person with cancer

Simply be there for them, throughout the entire journey. That’s how to support a friend with cancer.

  1. What do you do when a loved one has cancer?
  2. Supporting a friend facing cancer
  3. How to support the cancer caregiver
  4. Resistance to accepting your support
  5. How to support a person with cancer

Estimated read-time: 25 minutes

What do you do when a loved one has cancer?

Your first concern will be without a doubt, how to support your friend with cancer. However, before trying to support a person with cancer, it is wise to acknowledge your own feelings in this situation. It is your family member or close friend who is in a life-altering situation, and this will produce heightened emotions for you to have to process too.

When you are healthy, you cannot fathom what it is to be sick, or even to face death. The fact that someone close to you has cancer is threatening; cancer can happen to anyone and this reality can be a shock.1

You may feel nervous about how to support a friend with cancer. Seeing them for the first time, as approaching someone who has had a devastating diagnosis can be daunting. This is because you are not sure how to be or what to say 2 in case you ‘say the wrong thing’.

In fact, for many supporters, worrying about what to say to someone with cancer can be a major source of distress. Whether it is not knowing how to respond when someone close to you tells you they have cancer, or how to find something inspirational to say.

Overcoming the problem of how to support a friend with cancer is a common issue. What can you say or do that could ever be enough?

Knowing what to say to someone with cancer can be even harder when the person is facing an incurable, terminal or life-limiting diagnosis. Keeping control of your natural emotional reaction and putting their need of support before your own can be almost impossible.

Yet perhaps knowing what not to say to a person facing cancer is even more important. Thread carefully to avoid making a clumsy remark because you are scared to know what to say. When trying to understand how to support a friend with cancer you do not want to end up talking just for the sake of filling an awkward silence.

Life is about love for others so don’t be afraid to reach out to your loved one affected by cancer. The best example of what to say when someone as cancer is simply to say that you don’t deserve this, you didn’t do anything wrong and that you will be there by their side through this every step of the way.

The way forward at every point along this journey is to show compassion, warmth, empathy and love with your words and actions.

Acknowledging that your friend or spouse may have cancer, but your relationship will always be there and be the same will also give you both a lot of comfort.

Helping a friend with cancer

This is certainly not the time to withdraw or avoid, even if you are upset, confused or frightened,3 as this can only lead to isolation and a negative impact upon overall health4. It is difficult place to be in when whether your friend will ‘do well’ or not is out of your control and they are at the mercy of how their cancer will respond to treatment.

It is common to have to deal with overwhelming emotions of helplessness, experience feelings of inadequacy5 and become frustrated by all the ups and downs. However, it is important to point out, that the time you spend with your loved one should not be about you, so don’t burden the patient with your story as their energy levels will be in short supply.6 Your role should be to listen to what they are going through and to be of help to them.

If you are experiencing emotional distress you should not attempt to shut this down, pretending that you are fine for the sake of the patient. You must get support for yourself by reaching out in turn to your own supportive network of friends, family and professional help.

How to support a friend with cancer

Our emotional needs of companionship, friendship and solidarity in adversity can be met through the key survival tool of mutual support. The person close to you with cancer is still the same person but is now in a vulnerable state. In fact, you are all fragile at the moment, so be outwardly gentle towards the patient and go easy on yourself.

Their need for support is greater now more than ever and knowing that you will be there for them is probably one of the few sureties they have in this moment. Your friend or relative needs to know that you really care for them, are truly empathetic and supportive to all that they are going through, even if you are finding the cancer experience a huge learning curve.

They will probably rely upon your relationship more than you will ever know,7 but having the reassurance that you are there by their side will make any suffering more bearable.8,9 They will rely on you for relief from this situation, safe in the knowledge that you appreciate what they are going through, even though it is difficult for everyone to face.10

Interestingly, researchers believe that the level of loving and caring support the patient has and the compassionate connection they feel from those around them, will all have an impact upon the patient’s ability to cope.11  There are benefits for everyone as the experience of this social connection can also improve the mental and physical health of all involved.12

Your priority therefore should be to give them the space and security they need to be open throughout, to listen to their emotions and actively support their practical needs. This is their time of need, no doubt your turn in life will come. There is often an interchange of support in times of crisis13 and you too will have family and friends to turn to as well when you are faced with challenging times; what goes around comes around as the saying goes.

How to support someone with cancer

The question should not only be how to support the person with cancer but when is the help needed? The point of diagnosis is the moment when most support is needed.14 At this time, the patient and caregiver will more than likely be overwhelmed by the love and offers of support from not just close family and friends but from the wider community, colleagues and well-meaning sympathisers.

Those who do not necessarily have the supportive network of family and friends around them will rely upon the invaluable care of volunteers and cancer charities who will fill the void and provide the much-needed support.

You may desperately want to help but it can be hard to naturally know what to do exactly. The social care the patient will most likely need will be based around; emotional, practical, economic and information-based support.15

In order to avoid the patient’s expectations falling short, be prepared to listen and be directed to do exactly what they feel is needed.16, 17

How to support a friend with cancer? What practical things can you do for a person with cancer? Common areas of social support you could help with are; positivity, research, transport, childcare, everyday chores, listening, diet, exercise, mediation and providing distraction.

Along with the practical support you can provide, you can also help them through their treatment in other ways.

For example, try to not let the patient lose their sense of self. It is too easy to take over control, to treat them differently, to talk over them and try to make decisions for them. This ‘help’ is not helpful. The patient is still the same competent person as before and railroading over them will only make them feel worse, making them lose their will.

Help them stay positive and focused on their treatment plan. Do some research to be able to talk to them knowledgably about their diagnosis and treatments so that they don’t feel like they are journeying alone.

Ensure that they are being supported by any relevant cancer charities or support agencies and make sure that they have access to a counsellor and encourage them to speak to one. If they need you to, make mental health appointments or book them in for a complementary therapy, as this could be difficult for them to either manage or have the time to do.

If eating hasn’t become an issue, show them that you care by cooking them a meal or give them a voucher for a meal out to spend quality time together.

Help them find purpose in their day and make plans to do things they might enjoy even if they are the simple pleasures like going out for a walk or having a coffee out if they are well enough. Suggest booking a massage, an aromatherapy session, reflexology or taking a yoga class together, anything which might help them to relax.

Boost their well-being by going to see the latest film or by watching some comedy at home. The focus of an activity which will lift their mood and raise their self-esteem by getting them dressed and out of the house where the sense of cabin-fever can only serve to drag them down.

Be prepared to re-schedule or perhaps have to wait for an opportunity as the patient’s diary can fill up quickly with blood tests, hospital appointments and nurse visits, with situations changing, and schedules not set in stone.

A great idea how to support a friend with cancer is to make their life easier or nicer. You could perhaps treat them to something which they would like or that may improve their situation but would never get themselves.

How to support the cancer caregiver

Being a caregiver is an intense experience as you are pulled in so many different directions. It can be lonely and isolating to be the one who must face the many struggles demanded of the moment, along with the uncertain future of potentially having to live the rest of your life with loss.

The pressure of significant demands coupled with the prospect of the unknown can expose caregivers to a greater chance of developing emotional, mental, and physical problems.18

These difficulties can threaten the caregiver’s wellbeing often are made worse as they often put their needs at the bottom of the pile.19 There is however, a growing recognition in the medical and scientific worlds of the shared suffering the patient and their caregiver experience when facing a terminal prognosis.20

The impact this illness can have upon a couple may be different, but equally devastating.21 As a result, improving the quality of life of the caregiver throughout the trauma should also be a consideration.

A caregiver may find it difficult to reach out for help as they don’t want to impose on others,22 their pride stands in their way, they value their independence or they even may simply feel so overwhelmed by fear and anxiety23 that they shut down and shut others out.

How to support a friend with cancer and their caregiver can come in many different forms, for example;

  • emotional support
  • practical help with cooking and cleaning
  • financial assistance
  • coordinating a support network
  • managing the demands of treatment schedules
  • appointments and medications
  • assistance communicating with larger circles of family and friends
  • transport
  • paperwork and even with research and information gathering.

These forms of support can all lessen the burden for the caregiver, increase their sense of wellbeing24 and free them up emotionally and physically to be able to better care for the patient.

Supporting a cancer caregiver

Resistance to accepting your support

Don’t be surprised or offended if the inner circle needs some room to process the shock, especially if the diagnosis is of a late stage disease. Most offers of help come at a time when the patient and caregiver can’t think straight, when they are themselves trying to process the diagnosis and are quite possibly in denial, even actively attempting to resist any change to their life.

It can be extremely frustrating to know how to support your friend with cancer when they are not in a place to accept it just yet. Just remember that your support may be of more use when the offers stop coming, so initially let them know you are there for them and then give them some space. It is crucial that you let them have time to breathe, to digest the situation and be there for them after the dust settles.

Suggest a walk or a coffee a couple of weeks after the initial upheaval when they probably will have a clearer idea of what they are facing. See where their thoughts are and think about what they might need by way of support. Try not to impose what you think they need, just react to what the patient and caregiver are saying and try to think of ways to help them.

Your friend may even outright refuse your offers for help and this can be confusing and even hurtful for you, especially at a time when you are already unsure about what to do. This resistance could be because they are in denial, attempting to self-protect and this is an outward display of their inability to accept the situation.

Caregiver loneliness

There are two sides to illness, what you are really experiencing and suffering behind closed doors and the front you put on for the visitors.25 As their friend, you may not see the whole picture as it is sometimes easier when under such pressure to put on a front than to admit what is really going on.

When you are really not coping, the last thing you want is someone intruding your world, trying to enter your inner thoughts. The patient and caregiver will be feeling extreme pressure and stress and may even be developing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Outwardly, they may be behaving erratically or even become completely disconnected, this comes from the simple fact that they are engrossed by their present. They can become so isolated within themselves that any attempts to be let in could make them feel extremely threatened, exposed and even more vulnerable.

The default is for the patient and caregiver to retract into themselves and their thoughts even further. To others, this obviously isn’t the right thing to do, but when you feel so detached from the norm this tactic perversely feels like the safest option.

When you do get a chance to talk, allow them to direct the conversation, to share what they want to share and to leave out what they want to leave out. Appreciate that the patient may not want to talk about cancer, the latest in their treatment plan, their thoughts about the future or even their own mental health.26 They are going through enough and don’t wish to be the topic of conversation.27 Be respectful of their wishes which they explicitly state or simply imply through their enthusiasm to talk about life other than cancer.

How to support a person with cancer

Actions speak louder than words. Offer to do things for them, that practical support is needed and most appreciated by anyone facing cancer. The patient and caregiver are so consumed by it all that having to organize others could be altogether too much, so being pro-active in your approach may be the way forward.

Everyone lives such busy, full lives that the support the patient or caregiver needs will probably come in little ways from many people.

It is easy to stress over how to support a friend with cancer. Don’t worry about walking on eggshells, if they don’t want your support, they can tell you.

1. Make contact

Reach out, this is a tough human experience and the simple contact with others can be so reassuring and needed. A regular short text message saying that you are there for them, keeping up to date with their treatment, offering help or simply saying that you are thinking about them is one of the best things that you can do. However, you must understand that you may not get a reply and don’t expect one.

The outpouring of love and support from family, close friends, old friends reconnecting, colleagues and even from people that you don’t know very well is an amazing thing that should be embraced. Although, it can be massively overwhelming to be on the receiving end and replying to every message can become a job in itself.

The patient and their caregiver will be dealing with the many competing demands on their time, so don’t be offended or put off supporting them if you don’t get the normal responses. Try to take your own needs out of the equation when thinking how to support your friend with cancer. Don’t to put any added pressure upon the patient to reply to every contact, simply rest assured of the fact that knowing you are there for them will be very uplifting.

2. Do a shop or make a meal

When your head is in turmoil and reeling from a diagnosis, the last thing you are thinking about is, ‘what’s for dinner?’ Do a quick shop of the essentials and food that can either freeze or be for the store cupboard.

Many friends may have the same idea and there is nothing worse than having too much food given to you and it going to waste. So, it is probably a good idea to make a meal or do a shop when they need it most, for example in a few weeks’ time.

An alternative would be to provide healthy snacks and meals for long hospital appointment waits28 or save your cooking for times such as their return home after a stay in hospital. If your friend is not registered for online shopping, perhaps suggest setting it up for them so that it is one less thing for them to think about.

Supporting your friend with cancer

3. Visit, if appropriate

As a visitor, being one of many, you may not be able to appreciate the totality of the experience of receiving an endless stream of well-wishers. It is emotionally and physically exhausting and demands a level of vitality which the patient and caregiver may not currently have. Feeling like you have to be in good form, outwardly showing strength, a positive attitude and that ‘fighting spirit’ your friends and family are eager to see takes up a huge amount of energy.29

Try to avoid just dropping in because there may already be visitors, in which case too many people would be unfair for the patient to have to manage. The patient and caregiver could be attending one of their many appointments at the hospital or health centre, the patient may be in bed or there could even be nurses or the palliative care team in visiting.

If you do drop by, don’t be offended or surprised if you get turned away if this isn’t a good time. However, you do not have to always physically visit to show empathy and love. Sending a card or message, delivering flowers or leaving a home cooked dinner off are all great ways to keep the patient’s spirits up.

Another way to spend quality time with your friend is to offer to drive or attend a routine appointment as this offer of practical help will also lift some burden off the caregiver. In general, it is wise to check if, and when it is okay to visit.

4. Don’t talk just to fill a silence

This is a very sensitive time and the patient and caregiver can be hurt easily by clumsy remarks. It is easy to talk out of nervousness, but you do have to watch that you don’t say just anything to simply fill the silence.

When you are silent you will be giving them the space and permission to talk and share their fears. This is not about you. No matter how overwhelmed or upset to hear about your friend’s predicament, you have got to be strong for your friend.

This doesn’t mean that you must not show your shock and sadness, but it does mean that you do not want to let go to the point that the patient is comforting you in this situation. That doesn’t mean that you can’t show emotion and love but try to be empathetic and imagine what they must be going through and how hard it is for them.30

It will probably be tough for the patient and caregiver to talk, open up and share this journey with anyone, even if you are a close friend. Yet, it is not up to you to solve the patient and caregiver’s problems, you do not have to come up with solutions to resolve every situation. Simply thank them for sharing, be there and listen to their inner-most fears.

If you feel that it is appropriate, encourage them to seek professional counselling or group support through their medical team.

5. Help them research

Researching cancer diagnosis

For the patient, it is important to know enough about your illness in order to make informed treatment choices and lifestyle changes which will give you the best chance of beating cancer. Arming yourself with knowledge will help you have a two-way conversation with your medical team and will also free you from many of the anxieties which come from dealing with the unknown.

The cancer world has a vast amount of information on offer and it is confusing to know where to turn. This website, Cancer Signpost has been created to give you the starting point in your research and will direct you to reliable sources.

To have to amass this knowledge alone is overwhelming and unfair, when the patient’s priority should to be funnel their energies into healing and recovering. This is where family and friends can step in to ease this burden upon the patient and caregiver in providing shoulder to shoulder support as you make this journey together. If you know a little, or a lot, you will be able to talk to them on a level which will make them feel much less alone.

6. Be compassionate

If the cancer patient or their caregiver wants to cry, let them cry. If they want to laugh, or pray, let them do so without judgement, no one can put themselves in their shoes or predict or judge their way of coping.

If they are not dressed or do not appear their normal selves don’t point out the changes in their appearance or the differences you see in them. Cancer and its treatment are harsh, but that does not mean that they cannot look just as good as before and recover fully mentally even if the process leaves its’ mark.

7. Do a message for them

Practical support has to be one of the best ways how to support your friend with cancer. Suggest a job or errand that you could do for your friend. Think about your everyday to-do list and offer to do something practical that you would normally be doing; laundry, folding clothes, tidying up, going to the post office or taking the dog out for a walk. Look around for subtle ways to help even when visiting, for example start doing the dishes or help host the visitors.

8. Re-visit memories

Often when visitors are there a certain amount of reminiscing will subconsciously happen, especially when the prognosis is poor. Another way of remembering the good times is to create a scrapbook, photo album or frame a special photo for them. This can be such a morale booster and is something which they can have by their side during a long hospital stay to provide comfort, a reminder of your loving and caring friendship.

Remember fun times

9. Be kind

Understand that the patient and caregiver are submerged in their own world at this time. Don’t expect the normal rules of friendship to apply. They may not be interested in what is happening in the real world, what you have been up to, how your day is going or how you are feeling. They may not thank you for the flowers or seem grateful for whatever help you are offering them.

They are simply not the same people at this moment in time. This reaction could last months, whilst they are going through what they are faced with. They may not even realise the way in which they behaved once they are through this difficult moment. You have to accept this reaction, do not be offended by it and be willing to continue the friendship unharmed on the other side.

10. Send a card, flowers or a present

How to support your friend with cancer? Showing your friend that you care can be done in many ways. Many people will initially send a card and it is lovely to receive a hand-written personal message especially in this age of messaging online. It can be difficult to know what to say but even the fact that you have taken the time to send them a card is a little way of showing that you care.

Others will send flowers which can be a beautiful up-lifter for everyone in the house. Perhaps think about when is best to send flowers because if it is everyone’s immediate go-to present, their house could be filled with flowers and start to reassemble a flower shop at best, a funeral home at worst.

What thoughtful or inspirational gift could you give to a person with cancer?

Perhaps choose something which will help them emotionally process, practically cope, physically deal with or lessen the cost of the entire situation will undoubtedly be much appreciated. For example, an informative or uplifting book will help them on their journey. Or, a product which increases their wellbeing by easing their suffering is a way of showing them that you really care and empathise with what they are going through.

11. Be open to spirituality

This may be the very first time that you have ever heard your friend or family member talk about religion or spirituality.

Do not be shocked, this is a very normal reaction as any type of cancer diagnosis will send your mind into overdrive and facing your own mortality, trying to make sense of it all can invade your every thought. Be open to allowing the sufferer to have these conversations without judgement or imposition.

Many patients and caregivers will want to try to understand why this happened to them and what is ahead. Are they afraid? Give them space to express this, facing your own mortality is a personal moment and it can be difficult to appreciate the full magnitude unless the reality is upon you. The comfort, love and support a religious or spiritual belief can give at this crisis moment cannot be underestimated.

Therefore, the space to talk about it should not be denied to them, even if their ideas are not your own beliefs as this is not a time to enforce your own spiritual or religious views. However, you may perhaps feel like it is appropriate to share the comfort you gain from your beliefs, depending upon your audience.

12. Listen

Listening is the kindest act that you can do in this situation, even though at times simply listening can be difficult.31  Allow your friend the space to just be,32 to sit with them, to be silent, receptive to their venting and physically there to give them a hug.

As a friend you know their back story, you know the people and personalities involved and can relate to their pain. For the patient and caregiver, opening-up is nerve-wracking and exhausting. Often, you can be an easier door to push open than talking to a counsellor. Having to re-tell the situation in all its glory whilst explaining every detail can be too emotional to deal with. Their world has suddenly got out of control and being expected to share with an outsider, having not had time to process what is happening, can be a distressing prospect.

If you are in a position which you could help financially, even in the short-term as a stop gap until the dark clouds eventually part, this may be a form of support which you could consider. If you are uncomfortable exchanging money, you could buy them some of the products or services they would be grateful of receiving.

If and when they are ready, your non-judgemental, understanding, sympathetic ear can be a real source of comfort and reassurance. Suggest a short walk, going for a coffee or sitting in a different room in order to create a time and space when they can share privately, without any disruptions.

13. Look after their kids

Nearly one third of all incidences of cancer will happen to people aged between the potential child-rearing years of 19 to 59 years old.33 Childcare can be a massive problem for a couple going through this ordeal with kids.

First and foremost, parents will want to keep the routines and daily reality of their children’s lives as normal as possible to limit upset and stress. There are also a huge number of appointments which you will have to go to and organizing your kids around them is an additional difficulty and source of strain, most likely placed upon the caregiver.

Most oncology departments often have a ‘no children’ policy due to the higher risk of infection for the immune deficient patients undergoing chemotherapy and it may even be impossible for them to visit depending upon the circumstance.

If you are a close friend, you will know the kids and the parents may have to rely upon your support in this way. Perhaps your kids are all friends and you could frame the support as an opportunity to have even more fun playdates. Any support in this area will be appreciated as more day-care or paid babysitters will only serve to put further stain on the financial uncertainty cancer can place upon a couple.

14. Clean their house

There is nothing better than coming back from an appointment or getting out of hospital to return to a clean house. Even if it is only the fact that the dishes are done, the bed has fresh bed linen, the laundry is up to date or there are flowers arranged in a vase, those little touches will be appreciated.

Obviously, not everyone will appreciate someone else re-arranging their personal items but if you are a close friend you will know the boundaries and your help doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

15. Take the patient and/or the caregiver out of the house

A lovely way to spend time together, create memories and be there for your friends is to take them out for a day or even just an afternoon of some nice times.

The pent-up stress and pressure of being at home, surrounded by reminders of illness such as medications and appointment calendars, watching far too much daytime TV can be depressing and de-motivating for all involved.

You may have to take into consideration any practicalities which may limit your options for example; their energy levels, the distance they can walk, any mealtime requirements or medications you need to bring, but all these hurdles can be overcome with a bit of planning.

Life is better, more fun and crucially worth living34 if you spend it in good company, doing something which will make you feel alive.

16. Financial support

How to support a friend with cancer in a truly practical and real way? Think about any possible financial concerns they may have. As an added dimension to the overall trauma your friends are going through, cancer can have an explosive effect upon the finances of both the patient and their caregiver.

Depending upon the job they do, the terms and conditions of any sick pay or other benefits they may be entitled to, there may be significant gaps in their income versus their expenditure. Their monthly budget will wildly fluctuate as any previous security is thrown up into the air for months on end.

A cancer patient and their caregiver will face additional financial pressures from all angles and trying to cope with these supplementary, unforeseen bills can become a source of significant distress.

The extra financial burden faced by a cancer patient and their caregiver will come from;

  • any medication and treatment costs
  • missed work
  • childcare
  • transport
  • hospital parking
  • home help
  • medications
  • out of pocket ferpartility preservation costs
  • complementary therapies
  • nutritional support of vitamins and minerals
  • medical supplies and equipment
  • wigs, hats
  • products to help relieve side effects.

If you are in a position which you could help financially, even in the short-term as a stop gap until the dark clouds eventually part, this may be a form of support which you could consider.

If you are uncomfortable exchanging money, you could buy them some of the products or services they would be grateful of receiving.

If you think the information on this new website would be helpful to others, please like and share the word.

Recommend to others facing cancer, on support forums, social media, in person or by email. Thank you.

Showing love when times are tough

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Related Topics

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