A cancer diagnosis can be devastating, regardless of the outlook. The news can also be hard on friends and family, as they struggle to figure out what they can do to help a loved one after the diagnosis.
Beth Pauvlinch, who wrote about caring for her mother who lived with cancer in her book Two Women 1Disease, said various gestures, no matter how small, can go a long way for someone dealing with the illness. Small actions and encouraging words can mean more than you think.
Curious about what they are or how you can help? Here are a few tips from experts and those who dealt with cancer firsthand on ways you can support a loved one living with illness:
Celebrate the wins along the way
Cancer can be an emotional rollercoaster that includes waiting for test results, extensive side effects from particular treatments and possibly going through a multitude of surgeries. Erika Hauer, a breast cancer survivor based in New Jersey and brand ambassador for the cancer support website Humanly, said that celebrating little victories can make the process more bearable.
“When I was going through treatment, my friends and family rallied behind me by making everything a celebration. We celebrated my chemotherapy, we celebrated by when I got my breasts removed, and so many other milestones,” she said. “Instead of being alone and be sad about what I was going through, I look back on my time during treatment as a party and celebration of life.”
Volunteer for specific tasks
Jann Fujimoto, a speech-language pathologist in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, who is undergoing breast cancer treatment, said having friends and family step up to tackle various tasks for her helped keep her mind at ease.
Make specific overtures, “such as offering to drive to chemo (or other medical appointments), take over family carpool responsibilities, organize meals coming to the house, host extra playdates/sleepovers for children,” she said.
And if you offer assistance, make sure of your the availability to follow through without undue effort. It’s important that the person you're helping “doesn’t feel as if they are inconveniencing you,” said Danielle T. Calvano, a breast program clinical navigator at White Plains Hospital Center for Cancer Care in New York.
Don’t walk on eggshells
The last thing most people living with cancer want to deal with is someone treating them like they should be kept in a bubble. Therefore, it’s vital to continue to engage with them as you did before their diagnosis.
“Try to keep our relationship as normal as possible,” said Roberta Luna, a 16-year-old pancreatic cancer survivor who advocates for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PANCAN).
She said that when going through her treatment, she appreciated when friends and family continued to joke with and even challenge her at times. “It’s okay to get mad at me for something not cancer-related. Be honest with me. Share how you feel. It’s important to me to have as normal a life as possible. I don’t want to think about cancer 24/7,” she said.
Jules Cohen, a medical oncologist at the Stony Brook University Cancer Center in New York and a clinical associate professor of medicine at the school, said to continue to do normal, fun, everyday things with patients “because life goes on even with a cancer diagnosis or during chemotherapy or after a grim prognosis.”
So have your weekly coffee meeting at Starbucks, head to the movies to see a new film you’ve been eying or try out a restaurant you haven’t eaten at before.
Don’t underestimate a comforting gesture
A little hug can really lift someone’s spirits and your loved one will likely welcome an endearing physical embrace.
“Look me in the eye, hold my hand, give me a hug. Cancer is not contagious, you won’t ‘catch it’ if you look at me or touch me. Hugs, handholding can be very comforting,” Luna said.
Encourage healthy habits
Many people living with cancer may feel the need to avoid food or drink due to nausea or other side effects from chemotherapy, said Raanan Berger, director of the oncology division at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel and a cancer expert with Belong.life, a social network for cancer patients, caregivers and health care professionals.
“Help them out by making sure that they have easily accessible favorite foods and gently remind them to keep sipping fluids even when they’re feeling nauseous,” Berger said.
Melissa Berry, founder of the lifestyle site Cancer Fashionista, suggested offering to make someone a warm, soothing meal such as a hearty soup or stew. “There is nothing better than a home cooked meal,” she said.
And if you are bringing meals to a person with cancer, be sure to take the food in containers that do not have to be returned, Fujimoto said. “It is a great support to receive meals but it can be a little stressful trying to figure out how the dishes will be returned to the giver of the food.”
Accompany them to their appointments
It’s not uncommon for those living with cancer to only remember 50 percent of what their doctor has relayed to them during an oncology appointment. Therefore, accompanying them to a medical office and being their eyes and ears in the meeting can go a long way in helping to make sure that they fully understand what their doctor is telling them.
“For newly diagnosed or those who are going to an appointment after a scan, ask them if they need someone to go with them,” said Marlon Saria, an advanced practice nurse researcher and assistant professor at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “You can not only help absorb the information being conveyed by the providers, you can also retain information about support services that are available to address their needs.”
Saria added that it can be helpful for a significant other, family member, friend or colleague to take the lead on organizing any pamphlets, brochures, business cards and phone numbers that a doctor hands out during an appointment. “You can help [the patient] to sort it out after the fog settles,” Saria said.
Don’t be afraid to bring a little humor
As the saying goes, laughter really is the best medicine. A fun way to relieve someone from the stressors of treatments and doctors’ appointments is to find some new movies to screen for them, said Heidi Floyd, a breast cancer survivor and an awareness ambassador for Wacoal, a lingerie company that has a current campaign to raise money for the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation. “And make them funny!” she added, noting that it’s a nice escape for an hour or two.
Don’t be a know it all
Cohen said it’s important to refrain from sharing “all you ‘know’ about cancer and cancer treatments, how pharmaceutical companies are trying to rip you off, how doctors don’t know anything, how you’re better off getting herbal, alternative medicines than chemotherapy, which damages the good cells as well as bad.”
Cohen stressed that it’s hard enough for patients to deal with a diagnosis and come to grips with the treatment they might need to go through without such input. “They don’t need their friend, relative, coworker to muddy the waters by giving them their two cents, no matter how well-intentioned,” he said.
Instead, offer to be a listening ear to what they’re thinking, feeling and going through. And do so without judgment and on the person’s own terms, said Sandy Southerland, a clinical nurse navigator at Hoag Family Cancer Institute in Newport Beach, California.
“Everyone processes the news of a cancer diagnosis differently,” Southerland said. “Some people want to be treated the same – talk about the same old things, and not focus on how they are sick. Others may want to talk about all the new developments and types of treatment they are receiving every step of the way. And some people will also transition from being open to private at various times. You just go with the flow and support how they feel in that moment.”
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