When someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer, you want to do everything you can to help. The challenge, said Peggy Smith, RN, BSN, OCN, Manager Cancer Navigation at St. David’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas, comes in knowing what to say or how act so that you don’t inadvertently make the situation more difficult.
“Many times, our first response when we hear the news is to start crying or say ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry’,” said Smith. “But that forces the person to comfort us instead of the other way around. Instead, we need to tell them that we love them and we will be there for them and will help in any way we can.”
Then, said Smith, make specific suggestions or offers of assistance, since sometimes they don’t know what they want or need or may be unsure exactly to what extent you are willing to help.
Four ways you can support someone with cancer
1. Listen without judgment.
Sometimes the most important task you can do for those facing cancer is just to listen. They are undoubtedly struggling with a whole series of emotions — fear, anger, grief — and need to be able to share those feelings with people they trust.
“Sometimes all they want is for someone to sit there and be there,” said Smith. “Patients need to be able to express their emotions, thoughts and fears without fear of being judged.” Even if you aren’t close by, you can still be a sounding board. Regular phone calls, emails, cards, even Skyping are all ways to keep the lines of communication open and let your loved one know that you are there.
2. Serve as their “cancer companion.”
Whether it’s a doctor visit, radiology appointment, chemotherapy or surgical procedure, the stress is intensified when patients have to be there on their own. Offer to take them to medical appointments, and then keep them company for the duration of the visit.
With their permission, you can also sit in on the visits with the doctors and take notes. This allows them to fully focus on what the doctor is saying.
3. Provide practical assistance.
Shopping, housework, bill-paying and errand-running don’t stop because cancer has entered the picture. But often patients don’t want to bother friends and family members for non-medical related tasks. Don’t wait to be asked to take the initiative: providing home-cooked meals that abide by dietary restrictions (packed in single-serve portions ready for the freezer), spending an afternoon doing laundry or cleaning or taking their place on the carpool list will offer a much-need respite to someone struggling to cope with everyday responsibilities and a serious illness.
4. Shift the focus away from cancer.
While it’s understandable for cancer to be all everyone talks about, it’s important that patients believe that there is a world outside of cancer. Talk about non-cancer-related topics, encourage them to participate in activities they used to enjoy and make plans for what you will do together when they are feeling better.
Not sure what to suggest? Smith recommended thinking about what the two of you did before cancer and then “make a point to do that again. Get back to as normal an interaction as possible because that’s what patients want. They don’t want to be defined by their disease. One patient told me, ‘I have cancer, but it doesn’t have me.’”
At the same time, respect their autonomy, Smith emphasized. “We have to listen to what they say and honor their boundaries. It’s not about treating them the way you would want to be treated. You have to think about the kind of person they were before the diagnosis and treat them accordingly. They are still the same person.”