How to Support a Loved One Through Cancer

You might not always say and do the right thing, and that’s OK.

Supporting a friend in a crisis has always been something I feel comes naturally to me, but when a close friend was diagnosed with cancer, my confidence faltered.

I’d always considered myself a good listener, and a kind person with an encouraging platitude and a warm hug to offer — but now I didn’t know what I could do to help, as much as I wanted to.

Psychotherapist Yuko Nippoda, a spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy, says it’s normal for people to feel this way after a loved one’s diagnosis.

Have your own support system

While a person may feel more comfortable offering support during other life struggles, supporting a loved one through cancer can feel challenging if they feel they’re unable to relate to what their loved one is going through.

What’s more, a cancer diagnosis can feel devastating — not just for the person who has received the diagnosis but for the people who are supporting them too. Often, those in a caring position are struggling to come to terms with it as well.

Nippoda says these feelings need to be managed if you’re to be a reliable support to your loved one.

“In order to support others, it is very important that you yourself are supported,” she explains. “Therefore, it is strongly recommended that you attend a support group for carers and share your experience with others.”

If, for whatever reason, you don’t have access to a support group, make sure you have someone you can talk to regularly, Nippoda advises.

Show up

“I’m here for you” is a platitude that’s often uttered when a loved one is struggling, but be sure to follow up on it.

Be physically present if your loved one is well enough for visitors, and regularly check in with messages and calls, depending on what they prefer.

“Having cancer is a horrible experience and it is even worse when patients feel abandoned, isolated, and lonely. It’s important that carers show they are always there,” says Nippoda.

In short, if you’re saying you’re going to be there, make sure you are.

Avoid talking about death

If your loved one brings up the subject, it’s important to talk about it. What’s not helpful? Bringing up a story about someone else you knew who had cancer and passed away.

“This kind of insensitivity can bring tremendous anxiety to the person with cancer,” says Nippoda.

Be honest

If you don’t know what to say or how to help, be honest about it. Tell your loved one that you want to help, but you don’t know what to do at the moment, says Nippoda.

“When honesty comes from a positive place it builds trust,” she says.

Be careful what you share

One question that often comes up for loved ones is: Is it insensitive to discuss the goings-on of my life, or is it a welcome distraction and a bit of light relief for my loved one?

“Carers have their own lives, and they might want to share these with the person with cancer,” says Nippoda. “This is not necessarily a bad thing to do, but it is important that they don’t feel abandoned or left out by being told too much about the carer’s life.”

If you sense that your friend or loved one isn’t interested in hearing about that baby shower they had to miss out on, drop it and talk about something you and your loved one can share instead.

Allow your loved one to feel what they’re feeling

Living with cancer can be an emotional roller coaster.

It may be tempting to encourage your loved one to be positive about “beating” cancer, but the experience of cancer is not positive. Instead, encourage your loved one to be in touch with their feelings, Nippoda suggests.

“It’s important that you tell them it is OK to feel down as they are going through a tough time,” she says.

Bring some laughter

A really positive way you can help is to bring laughter into your loved one’s life.

“Cancer patients can easily feel depressed and their energy level can be very low,” says Nippoda. “Laughter is a good tool for raising the energy level. It’s important that cancer patients can have happy moments.”

The bottom line

Knowing how to support a loved one through cancer can feel like a daunting challenge, and it’s a task you no doubt want to get right and do to the best of your ability.

You might not always say and do the right thing, but just knowing you’re there and want to do whatever you can to help can be a tremendous support to someone with cancer.


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