How to support a loved one with cancer

How to support a loved one with cancer

If a family member or friend receives a cancer diagnosis, you may feel powerless to help or unsure how to approach him or her to offer support. Jody Iodice, Ph.D., NCAC-II, CCS, a psychologist and facilitator at Cancer Wellness, shares how you can show support for a loved one with cancer.

First, know your support is valuable.

"Research indicates that people with strong support systems tend to have a better quality of life," says Dr. Iodice. "People who have reliable support systems often have less anxiety, depression, isolation and withdrawal from activities they enjoy. Research has also demonstrated people have better physical resistance to respiratory and other physical complications from cancer treatment when they have strong support systems."

The right approach to offering support

While social support can have a positive effect, it is important to find a balance between offering support and knowing when to step back.

"Listen to what the person with cancer truly needs, whether it is something emotional or practical," she says. "Individuals have emotional predispositions that are either more pessimistic or more optimistic. Many times, those with a tendency toward dispositional pessimism will not do well if they receive unwanted support."

The best approach is to ask your loved one if they need help or support and honor their response.

"If they say no, accept their response," she says. "You can say something like, 'I'm not going to take this on for you, but I'm here to help if you let me know what you really need.'"

Practical ways to support someone with cancer

If you are not the main caregiver, there are many practical ways to show you care.

  • Check the mail.

  • Clean. If you live far away, you can offer to hire a cleaning service a few times a month.

  • Cook. For someone who prefers privacy, you can call or text to let them know you are going to stop by at a certain time to drop off a healthy meal on their doorstep. Let them know you do not expect to visit or talk.

  • Create a chemotherapy care package.

  • Drive them to appointments or support groups.

  • Grocery shop or run errands. If your loved one prefers privacy, call or text to say they can text you or leave a to-do list on the front door. Tell them when you will stop by to pick up the list and when you will drop off the items on their porch.

  • Offer support to his or her caregiver. Caregivers such as spouses, significant others, parents and childrenneed emotional and physical support, too.  

  • Take their children to school.

  • Walk their dog or care for their cat.

Emotional support for someone with cancer

There are also less tangible ways to express support for your friend or relative.

  • Avoid acting as if nothing ever happened. "It is also common for survivors to hear, 'Wow, you look great. You look like you never had anything wrong with you,'" says Dr. Iodice. "That's positive to say, but it minimizes the huge internal emotional whirlwind that person went through. A better comment may be, 'You look great. However, I know this has been such a burden for you emotionally and physically."

  • Send a handwritten note. Even if you live thousands of miles away, this can be a lifeline of support. "Reiterate you are thinking about them, you know it is a difficult experience and you care about them."

  • Understand their journey is their own. "Avoid using examples like, 'My neighbor had the same cancer you have and is now doing great.' You want to be careful about minimizing the emotional impact of how devastated the person may feel," she says. "To say something like this generalizes the individual's emotional experience of a diagnosis of cancer.  Cancer is a unique whirlwind of an emotional experience not to be compared to someone else's experience of such a diagnosis." 

  • Validate their feelings. "For example, if they are expressing fear, you may say something like, 'I can see you're frightened about this,' as opposed to saying, 'I understand,'" says Dr. Iodice. "When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it may feel like the friend or family member is being flippant when they say they understand if they have never faced a cancer diagnosis themselves."

Your support is valuable and may make a bigger difference than you realize.

Learn more about support for cancer survivors and caregivers.


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