How to Support a Loved One with Cancer
Helpful tips from a cancer survivor
A major stressor faced by many people in their lifetime is a cancer diagnosis. However, cancer patients too commonly cite instances of people they know who never communicated emotional support regarding their illness. Although studies show that people do better emotionally in a crisis when they have strong support from family members and friends, it is sometimes difficult to know what to say or do if one of your friends or loved ones has been diagnosed with cancer.
I currently share the mixed blessing of being in cancer remission with my mom. I’m remarkably graceful to be in remission with her; but uncertain how as an athlete I succumbed to a smoker’s cancer diagnosis on my birthday. Or - far worse - how my mom was hit with a rare stage IV cancer. I would take hers on, if my fantasy where Hollywood or some omnipotent entity grants us the power to switch maladies could come true.
How I made positive transformations after my cancer diagnosis
Being in this unenvied position, I’ve learned that the only thing worse than your own pain is helplessly watching a loved one suffer. The first being mostly physical; the latter crushingly emotional. Yet it does not stop me from trying to will health or strength upon her.
According to a recent study by Katharine J.,Head of the Department of Communication Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, “Although adult cancer survivors and their families face unique psychosocial and health-related challenges related to cancer, little is known about how the illness experience of cancer may positively transform their mental, physical, and social well-being following primary treatment.”
Cancer has a way of quickly reprioritizing life while teaching a valuable lesson in perspective not otherwise gleaned. My diagnosis served as the perfect opportunity to “clean house” regarding friends, work, and how I spent my time. Suddenly, I was face-to-face with the regret of how I had been spending my life thus far, and with whom. I quickly removed shallow friends, my girlfriend at the time, and even a few family members from my sphere of influence. And, I never looked back.
Actions to support someone recently diagnosed
- Listen, and give advice only when you are asked. We all want to ease the pain of those we care about. But, dispensing unsolicited advice is one of the worst things to do to the newly diagnosed. One of the best things you can do, however, is to offer the gift of listening with empathy. Exclaiming to someone that frankincense, CBD, or turmeric can cure their cancer deserves a period of banishment. Just don’t.
- Support their cancer treatment decision. We cannot impose our will on others, even in instances of record-level relevancy or as a shared decision-maker. The choice rests with the patient. If your loved one asks you to contact medical providers, be sure you have written consent. Privacy laws prohibit health professionals from speaking to relatives - including parents or adult children - without the patient’s permission.
- Be present. Even in silence, the mere presence of someone we care for during a difficult time has immediate and lasting benefits. Sit with your loved one during treatment or have lunch with them afterward. Try to attain awareness about your loved ones’ physicians’ dietary recommendations. Your loved one may love sugar - but so do cancer cells.
- Learn about the cancer and treatment. CancerCare.org and other reputable organizations offer educational information and websites regarding cancer, respective treatments, and side effects. It’s common to get overwhelmed and frantic - especially regarding prognosis percentages that are overgeneralized and unspecific to your loved one’s case. Internet research is an activity best kept in moderation, and be cautious of your sources.
- Consider the caregiver. Caregiver burnout and fatigue is a real thing. No matter the relation, this is an often-overlooked premise. Caregivers take on many tasks, often including those formerly held by the recently diagnosed. The caregiver needs care too. Sometimes you need to call on backup in the form of additional family or friends. You can review and receive additional help at Cancer for Caregivers, use the resources at the American Cancer Society, or from the National Cancer Institute caregiver support page.
- Be steadfast. Those with cancer often experience a discernible drop-off in support from friends and family after their initial diagnosis. Cancer is a long-term disease followed by a longer remission period. It requires more from supporters than a gratuitous slap on the back and “You’ll kick this, buddy!” approach.
- Keep the status quo. For many people, being able to maintain life pre-diagnosis can boost their sense of mastery over the illness and lessen the life-impact of the disease. Cancer is a silent narcissist best kept small.
- Don’t be detached if you’re long-distance. Never underestimate the emotional support that comes from regular phone calls or texts. Since you’re too far to prepare food and bring it yourself, perhaps arrange to have meals delivered from a local restaurant or reputable and healthy food delivery service. Or, consider ordering groceries online from a local supermarket that delivers. Use vacation time or a holiday weekend to visit the ill person and arrange something enjoyable.
- If you have the means, offer financial assistance. Cancer can strain finances to the point of permanent financial ruin, and many people are too proud or ashamed to ask for monetary assistance. If you determine it’s needed and are able to offer, raise the subject respectfully. The Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition, Cancer Care, or the resources page via the American Cancer Society can also be of considerable help.
There is always an upside or takeaway to every hardship, though it often takes time and distance to source it. In my case, I am much closer to my parents through our shared experience of caring for my mom. Adversity also gave me the incentive to leave a dead-end job and relegate my only toxic sibling to the “acquaintance pool.” Sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge.
I regularly lean on prayer, daily gratitude, and striving to stay rooted in the moment with mindfulness. These are helpful tactics I would not have learned otherwise. There is no education like a struggle. Suffering is a conduit to empathy and awareness. Adversity yields purpose and refinement in life that can only come from life trials.
Hug your family and your hardships. They’re trying to tell you something.