Supporting a loved one through cancer
By 2020, in the UK, one in two people born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime, Cancer Research UK says – and while it’s not nice to think about, the reality is at some point it’s likely we’ll be supporting a friend or loved one through cancer.
Whether it’s someone at work, in your family or in your community, there are simple and practical things we can do to support someone we know after they have been diagnosed with cancer.
Many of us worry about doing or saying the wrong thing at crucial moments –but the truth is, when faced with scary times, most of us just want to know we have the love and support of the people who matter to us most.
Emphasising, Listening and Learning
Empathy is the first step to helping a friend or loved one through any illness. Taking the time to understand their situation and recognise how they are feeling will help them feel supported and listened to.
Even if you’ve never had cancer, we have all experienced times in our lives when we have felt scared and uncertain, been in pain or felt less than ourselves from an illness. What kindness from family and friends meant the most to you in those moments? Use this to help you make sense of what they might be going through.
Other things you can do:
- Take time to process your own feelings – If a loved one has cancer, you will likely have a lot of feelings too; before you can support someone else, you need to take the time to process your own feelings and try to calm your own fears. It’s only natural to think about how something affects us – for example, how much extra work you might need to do if a colleague takes a leave of absence – but taking the time to understand where you are emotionally first will help you keep the focus firmly on your friend or loved one in their time of need.
- Learn about their illness – Take some time to learn as much as you can about their diagnosis and treatment. It can be daunting to have to take in so much new information after being diagnosed with cancer, and your loved one might not want to talk about it over and over again; try asking their spouse or asking permission to update other friends and family to make sure everyone has the information they need.
There are plenty of simple and practical things you can do to help make life easier for a loved one who is battling cancer. Here are some suggestions:
- Ask permission – Well-intentioned as you may be, the support you want to give might not be right for them right now. Cancer is a very personal journey – check to make sure any questions or offers of advice are welcome before sharing your opinions.
- Stay positive but allow for sadness – Staying positive can help your loved one keep a good outlook during any challenges that lie ahead, but always temper this with reality. It’s normal to feel sad and scared after being diagnosed with cancer; acknowledging what they’re going through can help them feel less alone.
- Stay present – Don’t let fears about saying or doing the wrong thing keep you away. Check in, keep in contact and stay present in their lives. Spending time together doing things you’d regularly do can help your loved ones feel sane and normal during their cancer treatment.
- Pick up the slack – From cooked meals to offering lifts to helping take over some of their day-to-day responsibilities, helping your loved one pick up the slack can help them focus on their health rather than worry about the washing not being done. Tasks that might be easy for you can make a big difference to them – for example you could offer to pick up groceries, fill prescriptions, help with chores, make difficult phone calls or help with child minding.
Do you have any tips for supporting a loved one with cancer?