When a friend or loved one tells you “I have cancer”...
it can be a shock to your system and throw you into an emotional roller coaster. You immediately wish that you can help, but you aren’t sure how. During this time, emotional support and encouragement from friends and family are very important to the cancer patient. Cancer patients with a strong support system often have better clinical outcomes and an overall more positive outlook on their situation.
Here is a list of tips and suggestions to help better equip you to better support someone with cancer.
Listen. When someone gets a cancer diagnosis, they are often upset, worried, and confused. They may need to express their anger, fear, and distress. Being a good listener doesn’t mean you have to solve all their problems. It just means you let them talk without judgment and without trying to convince them not to feel that way. Let them express their emotions. Be positive by letting them know that you understand their concerns and that you are there for them anytime they want to talk.
Brighten their day. Going through cancer treatment is a long and sometimes tedious process. There are days filled with nothing more than doctors, treatments, and medications. Make your loved one smile by writing them a short note and leaving it in an unexpected place. You can tuck a few words of encouragement into the book they’re reading, next to their pill bottles, or in their sock drawer. Send a friend a cute card or a meaningful quote. They will delight in getting your support through the mail. These simple gestures will brighten their days with a smile.
Reward them for their courage. Show support by arranging a special meal, visit, or outing during their journey. Has your loved one completed their first week of treatments? Mark the occasion with a small cake and balloons. Is it a busy week with lots of doctor appointments? Offer to take your friend to dinner one night or cook them a meal. Look for simple things to celebrate. A good lab report, a positive doctor’s visit, or even getting through the week are reasons to celebrate.
Offer to Drive. Going to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, and other errands can be very tiring for someone with cancer. Support them by driving them where they need to go. You will help them save time and energy by taking them right to the door and carrying their packages. Play their favorite music during the drive and let them close their eyes and relax. Make it fun by stopping for coffee or ice cream!
Pamper them. Cancer treatment can be expensive and time-consuming. There isn’t always money or energy left over for treats. Small gifts, like new nail polish, a candle, or their favorite candy, show that you care. Taking them to a movie, a concert, or a trip to a museum or the zoo are great ways to let them relax and enjoy themselves. Remind them of the good things in life and create happy memories that will sustain them through darker days.
Throw a Hat Party. Hair loss is a common side effect of cancer treatment. It can make your friend or loved one feel self-conscious and depressed. Show your support by hosting a Hat Party or a trip to the wig store. Suggest guests bring different head wraps and hat styles. Make sure at least one is outrageous and will make everyone laugh! Have a few that everyone can try on and take pictures. They will be great reminders that your loved one is not alone. A trip to the wig store is easier with the support of a good friend. Offer honest advice about the different looks and try on a few to show your support.
Keep your visits short. Having cancer can be exhausting. As much as your friend or loved one wants visitors, remember that they may not be as active as they once were. Ask them when the best time for a brief visit is during their day. Come prepared with ideas to talk about and keep them positive. Your visit will be more enjoyable for them if you tell funny stories or update them with news about their favorite subjects. Help them out by hosting your visit! Bring a picnic basket with drinks and snacks to share so they can focus on enjoying themselves and not on entertaining. They will look forward to your visits when the time you spend together is happy and easy for them.
Offer genuine help. One of the worst questions a cancer patient or their families hear is, “What can I do to help?” There’s an almost endless list of ways you can help. Making them admit they could use help often adds to their stress. Instead, offer to do basic tasks like walking their dog or driving their kids to and from school. Suggest that you can pick up their groceries when you do your shopping, or that you’ll stop by the pharmacy and get their prescriptions. Drop off a meal or give them a gift card for pizza delivery. Show your support by helping with regular tasks and giving them a chance to rest and focus on their healing. Ask them if they’d be interested in having a housekeeper, lawn service, or regular meal delivery and then arrange everything for them. This makes a great gift from co-workers, a group of friends, or extended family. Help them by offering real solutions to managing their time during their illness.
Offer hope. You might have heard the saying, “Where there is life, there is hope.” There may come a time when your loved one is struggling with the side effects of cancer, or their treatment isn’t working. Even during rough times, they may want to plan a trip or make a purchase for their future. Encourage their dreams and goals. A magazine subscription, planning a weekend away, or saving up for a new dress or suit can give your loved one something to look forward to and encourage them when things aren’t going well. Choose your words carefully, there are definitely some things to avoid saying.
Be a germ warrior. Cancer treatment weakens the immune system and makes people more susceptible to germs. Help your friend or loved one fight infection by preventing the spread of germs. Don’t visit if you are sick. Wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer before you visit them. If they are coming to your home, disinfect kitchen counters and bathrooms with antibacterial wipes or cleaners. Individual, disposable, paper hand towels are a nice touch to add to your bathroom and kitchen sinks. They help make sure everyone gets a clean towel every time.
Bring Pictures. This is a good time to share old pictures. Make your next visit special by letting your friend or loved one reminisce about how silly you all looked years ago or how cute the kids were when they were little. Cancer patients may want to talk about their lives and share the memories of their most important moments. The support you show when you are willing to listen will make your visits priceless.
Encourage spirituality. Many people’s faith grows stronger with adversity. Remind them that God’s love holds promise during the toughest of times. Support their journey by saying a prayer with them, letting them know you’ve added them to a prayer chain, or by giving an encouraging gift. There are many wonderful books, figurines, and available. No matter your beliefs now is the time to honor their feelings and support their hopes.
Give lots of hugs. Hugs are free, easy, and simple to give. Science has shown that hugging for at least 20 seconds helps lower stress and boost the immune system. When most of their physical contact is doctors, nurses, and needles, a hug from you will help them reconnect with the benefits of a gentle human touch. Hold their hand when you’re visiting or pat them on the back or shoulder to create a tender and meaningful connection. Remember that they may be sore from IV’s, med ports, or surgery. Hug gently and hug often.
Help raise funds. Many organizations have fundraisers for cancer research. There are walks, runs, auctions, t-shirt sales, and car washes. Host a fundraiser using your talents by having a bake or plant sale, or by having a movie night or ice cream social with friends. Donate your art or handicrafts to raise money for a worthy cause. You can form a team and participate in a walk or run to raise money in your friend’s or loved one’s name. Knowing that you care enough to volunteer your time and talents to help end suffering is a unique way to show them your support.
Don’t focus only on the cancer. Being a cancer patient isn’t the only thing that defines your friend or loved one. They still have favorite TV shows, movies, and books. They may have tried new, healthier foods and have recipes that they would love to share with you. They still want to talk about their kids and pets. Don’t make every conversation about cancer. Discuss other things that are important to them and help them continue to enjoy other parts of their lives. Some days they may want to talk about what’s happening with their cancer and other days they may want to avoid the subject. Let them lead the conversation and be prepared to follow wherever they go. Your support as a true friend and someone who loves them will make a huge difference in their lives.