According to a CBS News survey of more than 1,000 Americans, 54% of people had or currently have an immediate family member with a cancer diagnosis. This sobering statistic highlights how many people’s lives are touched by cancer. Even more have known someone diagnosed with this devastating illness—a friend, acquaintance, or more distant family member.
If you have someone in your life struggling with cancer, you want to help but may not know what to do. Support is so important for cancer patients, from providing a listening ear to practical advice like a referral to a lawyer. Your role may change depending on who this person is and where they are on their cancer journey, but help is always welcome. Here are some useful ways to offer support.
There is a right way and a wrong way to support someone who is sick. Nobody wants to be in this position. Treating your loved one like they are sick, delicate, or fragile only makes them feel worse. Ask what they need rather than assuming they can’t do certain tasks.
Cancer patients have unique psychological needs. Read up on how cancer affects mental health, including depression, anxiety, stress, and fear. Armed with information, you’ll be a more sensitive and helpful supporter.
Cancer and its treatments affect the body and mind in many ways. This includes cognitive function. Your friend or family member may struggle with memory, concentration, and attention right now. Help them by taking notes at doctor appointments, during therapy sessions, and when meeting with nurses, financial planners, lawyers, and other professionals. Keep a dedicated notebook for this purpose, or use a tablet or your smartphone.
The experience of cancer is challenging, even traumatic, for some people. The last thing a cancer patient wants to do is relive it every time someone asks how they’re doing or what they need. As a caregiver or friend, you can offer ways for them to keep people updated without going over all the details again and again:
Because cancer takes a toll on mental and physical health, your loved one could use help at appointments. They need an advocate, someone to fight their corner and look out for their best interests. Show up for appointments, ask questions, and challenge health care professionals when necessary.
Strike the right balance between checking in with your loved one—finding out what they need and how they’re doing—and being overbearing. They probably enjoy some alone time but also need help and care.
Isolation and loneliness can be a problem for cancer patients for several reasons. Treatment weakens the immune system so that they may stay in more often. Depression can contribute to isolation, too, as can the physical changes accompanying cancer and its treatment, like hair loss or weight gain.
The best way to find out what your friend needs or wants is to simply ask. Every patient with cancer is unique, with their own needs, limitations, and preferences. Be direct but sensitive. It also helps to make your questions specific.
For instance, instead of asking, “Do you need help?” ask, “Would it be helpful if I cleaned the house for you? Or if I go with you to your next appointment?” Vague questions are easy to avoid for someone who doesn’t like asking for help. With specific questions, you’re likely to get more honest answers and find out how you can truly be useful.
It’s not easy to know what to say when someone has cancer. Be thoughtful and careful about what you say. Be sensitive to the feelings cancer patients often have: fear, anxiety, confusion, anger, helplessness. Avoid saying things like:
More supportive examples of communication include:
Of all the things you can do to help a cancer patient, sometimes the most useful is also practical. Your loved one is probably tired and unwell. They’re afraid and preoccupied with their care. Daily chores and tasks are bound to fall by the wayside. Help them with groceries, cleaning, cooking, childcare, and anything else you can easily take off their plate.
Everyone likes a gift. A care package shows you care and lets your friend or family member know someone is thinking about them. Create care packages that will help them take their mind off cancer. For instance, if they like spa days, put together a basket of nice soaps, bath oils, and manicure items.
At times it will feel impossible to find any joy while going through cancer treatments. But, as they say, laughter is the best medicine. Anything you can do to encourage your loved one to laugh and find enjoyment will only help. Believe it or not, this has been studied. Researchers found that laughter therapy benefits cancer patients. It reduces pain and improves cognitive function.
There is a time to laugh and a time to cry. Encouraging laughter and joy is great, but don’t push it. Your loved one is allowed to experience every feeling. It’s not fun, but it is therapeutic to allow them to express anger, sadness, hopelessness, and other negative feelings. Just listen.
As much as you want to help your friend with cancer, you probably don’t know what they’re going through, and you’re not a mental health professional. For the former, suggest a support group. They’ll get some comfort talking to people in a similar situation. Therapists can also help them deal with all the bad feelings illness causes and provide useful coping strategies.
Start with the location your friend is getting treatment. They may have a support group. If you can’t find a local group, go online or encourage your loved one to start their own community group. Some examples of online support groups and other resources include Cancer Care, the American Cancer Society, and the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation.
Some instances and specific types of cancer can be blamed on residential, environmental, or workplace exposure. For instance, mesothelioma is almost always caused by asbestos exposure on the job. Many industries and locations used this mineral, like steel mills in Pennsylvania and manufacturing plants in all states.
If your loved one suspects some type of exposure caused their cancer, a lawyer may be able to help. They can direct you to resources, look over work and medical information to find a source of exposure, and represent your loved one in a legal action to seek compensation.
It’s tough when someone you love has cancer. Even more difficult is being a caregiver for a sick loved one. Studies show that being a caregiver reduces the quality of life. Caring for a loved one with cancer increases your risk for depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, insomnia, and decreased immune function.
Caring for someone with cancer can be rewarding too, but you can’t ignore the potential pitfalls. Take time for yourself to process what’s happened and to safeguard your mental health. You can find support groups for families of cancer patients, and you may also benefit from therapy. Take care of your loved one, but don’t neglect yourself in the process.
Page Reviewed and Edited by
Dave Halpern, Mesothelioma Attorney
Dave Halpern is a Pennsylvania and New Jersey mesothelioma attorney with over 30 years of experience. He has investigated hundreds of cases and won numerous multimillion dollar settlements and verdicts for asbestos victims. Dave prides himself on working tirelessly to help his clients in their time of need.