When someone close to you receives a cancer diagnosis, the news can hit hard. Cancer is frightening – both for those receiving the diagnosis and the people who love them.
So, you want to support a loved one who has received a cancer diagnosis. How do you do that? What can you say or do to show your loved one what they mean to you as they battle cancer?
Follow their lead
Everyone’s case is different, said Jozie Allen, LCSW, who specializes in counseling cancer patients for OSF HealthCare. Your first step is to ask questions.
“Everybody’s taste is so specific and unique and how they handle stress and illness is so specific to them,” Jozie said. “We can’t assume what would be best. We have to be honest with yourself that we might not know how to help them, even if it’s our spouse, so we have to open about that.
“Open the conversation and let the patient take the lead,” she said. “Don’t just start saying you’ll do this or that. They may not want that. Ask, ‘How can I help you? What can I do for you?’ Then let them take the lead to share with you how they need help at that time.”
And what they need may change at any point in treatment, so keep asking the question. In fact, it almost always changes.
Everyone assumes they’ll bring a meal or offer to mow the lawn, but you need to ask before doing that. You might have a good idea for a meal, but because of treatment the person can’t enjoy it. They may have food restrictions or find a particular smell nauseating, and having to watch family enjoy a meal they can’t also enjoy makes it harder.
Instead of a meal train, donate a gift card so they can use it on what they want when they want it, or offer to pick up their groceries.
“If nobody knows what to do, just be there with them in silence,” Jozie said. “Not everything requires action or a response. Sometimes just being present is helpful. It’s often enough to just listen. You don’t have to know what to say as long as you’re listening.
Find more tips on providing support during cancer.
“Automatically giving positive responses and trying to lighten the mood can backfire, too,” Jozie said. “Hearing ‘You’re going to get through this. It will be fine,’ can often be irritating to a cancer patient who needs their fear and sadness to be validated. A lot of times we don’t want to admit we don’t know what to do, but just to say that and admit it helps open up everything.”
You have to follow through with what you say you will do.
“I hear probably once a day, ‘People call to ask how I’m doing, but they don’t really mean it.’ The patients just answer, ‘Oh, I’m doing OK,’ and don’t really engage,” Jozie said. “Saying ‘Call me if you need anything’ can be empty. Make sure you really follow through and initiate. Don’t wait for the cancer patient to reach out to you, because they more than likely won’t for fear that they are a burden to others.”
A self-reliant person may have a hard time accepting help. That doesn’t mean you should stop offering, Jozie added.
Another thing that can bother cancer patients is people feeling sorry for them.
“They want to be treated the same,” Jozie said. “They don’t want others to feel sorry for them and to be treated like a patient at home. They don’t want everything to change.
“Whatever can remain normal, that’s what we should try to do, including your interpersonal dynamics,” she said. “Try to bring in some kind of distraction or humor. Go to lunch or movie or have a game night.”