How to really help a friend or family member through cancer

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help”.

When a person is going through something particularly difficult in life, well-meaning friends and family can make this comment glibly, almost as a reflex. But it’s a completely different thing to offer specific help, commit to your promise and follow through! That’s what a cancer patient truly needs.

Cancer patients often appear to be “strong” (so as not to cause their loved ones undue worry), and will often try to cope on their own and will not ask for help, but that doesn’t mean it’s not wanted or needed. With that in mind, here are some of the most meaningful things you can do to help. Choose the ones you can fulfil and pass the list on to other close friends or family members.

Admin duties

  • be the “point person”: offer to make phone calls or send e-mails on behalf of the cancer patient to keep friends and relatives up-to-date. This means that the cancer patient doesn’t have to relay the same difficult details over and over again
  • drop off books, magazines, DVDs
  • offer to help set-up a home office, if the person can potentially do some work from home

Heavy lifting

  • make meals and drop them off in plastic containers that can be stored in the freezer (even if there are times when the cancer patient cannot eat much, these meals will help the family cope)
  • offer to run errands (to buy groceries, go to the pharmacy etc.)
  • offer a lift (to treatment, doctor’s appointments, or in general when your friend/family member doesn’t feel up to driving)
  • offer practical help, such as helping with laundry, housework, gardening, walking the dog
  • assist with baby-sitting, collecting children from school, help with homework, sleep-overs
  • ask whether the patient would like you to accompany him/her to treatment sessions or appointments with the doctor. They might just need some to wait with them or drop them off.

Emotional support

  • offer to be “on call” for emergencies – and then, mean it!
  • offer practical and emotional support to the spouse, children or loved one of the cancer patient – they are also trying to cope with immense stress

 “I really don’t know what to say to my friend or relative who has cancer”…

Often we worry about what to say, but listening is the most helpful thing we can do.  It’s important to show concern, offer support, empathise and offer encouragement, even if we don’t have any ready answers.

How can you respond from the heart?

Honesty, consistency and respect are your three guides here – tell the truth, stay the course and respect your friend/family member’s choices. Here are some specifics:

  • respect the cancer patient’s need to share information and personal feelings, or to be private
  • include the patient in day-to-day activities and events – they’ll decline if they don’t feel up to it
  • tell your friend/family member you love them and that you care – offer a hug and a shoulder to cry on
  • make an effort to spend quality time with a loved one – even if it means travelling far for a short time/visit
  • respect your friend/family member’s decisions regarding their treatment, even if you disagree
  • continue to offer support throughout the process, not just at the outset at the time of diagnosis, when offers of help flood in …. and then dry up as time goes by
  • send a message, text or card to say you care – remember the important calendar dates as well (operation date, start of chemo or radiotherapy, end of chemo or radiotherapy etc.)
  • talk about stuff other than cancer – your friend or family member will need to take a “break from cancer”!
  • tell the cancer patient when you truly think they start to look better
Read  A gene which makes tumours grow?

Things NOT to do, even if you mean well

“Don’t worry – I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Even though you’re trying to offer support and be positive, this line is often very unhelpful. Every cancer patient is worried and they are not certain of anything, least of all, being “fine”. Here are some more no-go’s:

  • don’t offer advice they don’t ask for; don’t be judgemental
  • don’t talk about another person’s cancer diagnosis and treatment as if “it’s all one and the same”: every patient’s case is individual and treatment differs – this can cause unnecessary anxiety and doubt
  • don’t be over-optimistic as this can minimize the cancer patient’s very real fears and concerns
  • do not visit the cancer patient if you may possibly be sick as he/she may have very little immunity to serious infection
  • don’t say to the chemotherapy patient: “try eating some cake or chocolate … I wish I could eat that and not gain weight” – chemotherapy patients often don’t feel like eating anything!

It may seem like a hard-to-do list, but fighting through chemo or radiotherapy, fear and side-effects is also hard. Don’t distance yourself when your friend or relative becomes ill – rather reach out: it may not be easy, but offering support when you don’t have the answers or the ability to ‘fix’ the situation, is one of the most powerful ways to love someone.