Helping When a Loved One Has Cancer

I just learned my friend was diagnosed with cancer. How can I be most supportive? How can I help?

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

When someone you know has cancer, it can be very difficult to know how to help or even what to say. People often fear saying the wrong thing, so many times they say nothing at all. It can feel incredibly helpless, however, to not do or say anything. Here are some thoughts on what is most useful.

1. One of the best things you can do for a friend or relative is to treat them as you normally would. If your relationship typically involves teasing or humor, it’s helpful to maintain this style of interaction. Your friend or relative is already facing many losses and losing the dynamic in your relationship could very well be another loss they associate with their cancer.

2. Be encouraging, but not dismissive or overly optimistic. Saying things like, “It’s all going to be ok,” or “God has a plan,” can prevent your friend or relative from expressing their feelings. For example, they probably already, or at some point will, feel angry. Telling them, “Things happen for a reason,” does not give them room to freely express their anger. Consider sharing encouraging words such as, “I’m here and would like to help you go through this.”

3. Let your friend or relative feel whatever they feel. Their emotions will likely change over time and even day-to-day. Don’t tell them to feel differently and don’t say, “You have to think positively.” If their angry, be angry with them. If they’re sad, be empathic and accepting. If they’re feeling good, enjoy some good times with them.

4. Spend less time trying to think of the right thing to say and spend more time just listening. Listen not just to hear, but to understand. Ask questions if you’re confused about what they’ve said. And don’t judge, even if you disagree or think you might feel differently.

5. It’s helpful to listen and talk about your friend or relative’s cancer, but don’t let every conversation with them be about their illness. If you used to talk about politics, talk about politics too. Find the right balance of acknowledging their cancer and maintaining normalcy. And remember, it’s ok to ask your friend or relative what they would like that balance to be.

6. Ask what specifically you can do to help and then LISTEN! Sometimes it’s helpful to ask if they would like help with specific chores (e.g., grocery shopping, yard work) or just ask if there is anything you could do to help. Do what they find helpful, not what you think would be helpful.

Here are some things you should NOT do or say”
1. Don’t tell your friend or relative what they should do. If they ask for input, you can share your opinion as just that…an opinion. Let them battle cancer in a way that feels right to them.

2. Don’t take away autonomy. Whether it’s the independence in making their own medical decisions without your judgment or doing day-to-day tasks for themselves, allow them to feel normal. Unless they don’t feel up to doing something and have asked for help or their doctor has advised against certain activity, insisting on doing things for your friend or relative will only make them feel worse. Don’t treat them as if they’re helpless.

3. Don’t compare their cancer to anyone else’s and don’t share stories of others who have had cancer. Their case is unique and comparisons are not helpful.

4. Don’t treat them as if they’re fragile or contagious. If it was normal for you to hug, you should still hug them. A touch of their hand or an arm around their shoulder can be very comforting.

It’s also very important to take care of your own emotions related to a friend or relative’s cancer. Whether as a partner in the primary care-giver role or a friend on the periphery, you are going through something difficult just as the patient is. Supportive therapy can be extremely helpful for everyone who has felt cancer in any form or fashion. I work extensively with patients battling cancer as well as friends and loved ones affected by the disease. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions or if I can help you or someone you know.