How to Support a Loved One with Cancer
Grace Weatherby
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2023

How to Support a Loved One with Cancer

When a friend or a family member has cancer, it’s only natural that you want to be supportive. What doesn’t always come naturally is knowing what to do. You may feel unsure about what to say and wonder how best to help and support them.

As you consider your options, it’s important to remember that every person with cancer has a different experience and how open they are to conversations and even accepting help can vary dramatically. The most important thing you can do at any stage of their illness is to listen and respect their wishes. If they decline a visit or a phone call, don’t take it personally. Their need for privacy or to have some quiet time has nothing to do with you and everything with them having a sense of control at a challenging time in their life.

Here are some tips and ideas for supporting someone with cancer:

Be a good listener: While this is important at every stage of their diagnosis and treatment, it’s especially important early on. Even though your loved one has a diagnosis of cancer, it may take months for their treatment plan to take shape. Avoid asking them questions about treatment as it’s likely they may not have answers. Instead, ask how they’re doing and adjusting, then just listen. Allow them to share whatever emotion their feeling, even frustration or anger. Do not try to ‘fix’ their emotions but do let them know you hear them. A caring listener can be invaluable.

Be respectful of how and where they want their story shared: Some people are comfortable sharing every stage of their experience with cancer broadly— including on Facebook—while others are more reserved. Be sure to ask who they have shared the news of their diagnosis with and if they would like you to tell others and respect their wishes.

Provide a welcome distraction: Having cancer is a full-time job. If and when you can, try to engage your loved one in something or anything that doesn’t have to do with cancer. Talk about what you’re doing, share memories, discuss books and movies, and share jokes. If you’re unable to visit—and even if you are—drop a card or note in the mail to let them know they’re on your mind and that you’re sending good thoughts their way. Another fun idea is to provide an activity bag filled with distractions during treatment. Throw in a coloring book, a magazine, a puzzle book, a list of funny podcasts, and, if they’re a crafter, some useful supplies.

Resist the urge to share stories: While you may think that sharing stories of other people’s success will be inspiring, it may not always have that effect. Everyone’s cancer treatment and experience and response to treatment is different. No matter how well-intentioned your story sharing may be, you don’t want to cause them to question their treatment or their recovery.

Help where help is needed: Instead of asking your loved one, ‘What can I do?’, listen as they share how things are going and pay attention to where they or their care partner may be struggling. This may be walking the dog, mowing the lawn, providing rides to appointments, picking up kids, doing laundry, going to the pharmacy, babysitting, and, yes, bringing a meal. Offer in the form of ‘Let me do (this) for you.’ If they’re resistant to help—and they may be—you can always respond with ‘I want to do something to help so I’m going to volunteer at a cancer event’ or ‘I’m going to make a donation’ to a related charity.

It’s also important to check-in on caregivers. Make time to spend time with them and find out how they’re holding up and, again, listen for how you can help. It’s helpful to acknowledge that cancer isn’t just happening to the patient and to let them know that their struggle is also seen and heard.

Never underestimate your power to make a difference in a cancer patient or caregiver’s day. Do your best to help in ways that lighten their burden and don’t add to it. It’s tempting to rush in when we hear news about cancer but rushing in may be more about your emotional reaction to the news and less about what might support this family to get through a long and difficult journey. If you can, try to stay present throughout that journey. In some ways, ongoing kindness and support is more important and valuable as any initial outreach and gestures.

Elizabeth Fredland, LICSW, is the oncology social worker at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center, part of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and Southwestern Vermont Health Care in Bennington VT.


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