How To Be There for Someone with Cancer
“I have cancer.” The words are the most difficult I’ve ever had to say, but as much as I didn’t want to believe them, I desperately didn’t want to put the weight of my diagnosis on the loved ones around me. Maybe your friend or family member recently shared the life-changing news with you or with a good friend of yours. What do you do now? What do you say? Do you cry with them? Do you stay strong for them? How can you support them during this time? After my diagnosis, I had a lot of people on the internet reach out and ask me similar questions, and knowing that everyone’s experience is different, I was too timid to give them an answer.
But here I am, three years later, understanding that not knowing what to do is more than a problem for the loved ones of a cancer patient. It’s the factor that leads to the patient’s loneliness and feelings of alienation. It’s a tricky situation all around. Hearing the news of a bad diagnosis can be a crippling experience for the family and friends of a cancer patient, which leads to hesitation to get involved, reach out, or offer support, for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
I understand how at a loss you might feel in a situation when someone has just told you they have cancer. You may feel like crying. But do you cry? You don’t want them to worry about your feelings at this time. And you definitely don’t want them to think that you think they’re dying. But wait, are they dying? What do you even say? What do you do? It can feel like any decision you make is the wrong one. Let me assure you, there is no “right way” to react. But it’s okay if you react! If you think you majorly put your foot in your mouth, you can apologize for it later and make up for it by just being around them and offering support. In general, being authentic can be very refreshing at a time when everyone around them may be walking on eggshells. When people are tip-toing around you because you have cancer, it can make you feel like it is up to you put everyone at ease, rather than facing your own emotional and relational needs. So remember, be authentic. And just be there. How? Well, let’s talk about some of the trickier needs most cancer patients are dealing with, and then I’ll talk about more practical ways you can help.
Spending time with your loved one is the easiest way to be there after a cancer diagnosis, but it can seem so difficult to make the first move. I’m here to say, just do it. Hop in your car. Buy a plane ticket. Plan lunch. Bring coffee. Send flowers. Pick up the phone. Like I said, so many people don’t know what to do or say, so they just don’t do or say anything. And meanwhile, at a time when they most value connection and time with the ones they love, the cancer patient will often find herself alone.
For me, just being around a group of friends was a great outlet and opportunity for laughter. It felt a little weird if nobody acknowledged what I was dealing with, but after quickly acknowledging it, I was desperate to just move on and partake in the usual fun shenanigans. If you’re not really a funny kind of friend, that’s okay! Take your loved one with cancer out to see a comedy show or a funny movie they’ve been wanting to see. Maybe just rent an old favorite movie and watch it at home where they can be comfortable. Maybe it feels like a lot of pressure to do something one-on-one, so ask a mutual friend to join you if you’re nervous! Planning a game night with friends would be a great idea.
I remember my friend Kara stopped by one day when I had Lucy down for a nap. We sat out on the patio just talking about life and laughing, and she pulled out a cigarette and said, “You want one? I mean, you already have cancer, so….” And I laughed hysterically and so appreciated her ease around me, which made me feel like it was just like old times, even though I had cancer and she was acknowledging it. No eggshells there!
Ask questions, and listen. Don’t assume they are scared or worried. I actually wasn’t scared or worried after my diagnosis. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have feelings or sometimes fears. I hesitate to even offer advice about this, because everyone has different ways of communicating, and different levels of vulnerability. But having cancer may make someone more vulnerable than ever. Don’t be afraid to boldly ask, “Are you afraid?” or “Are you angry?” You could soften the questions with, “If I’m intruding, just let me know and we can talk about something else.” But sometimes it helps to have someone draw out feelings with leading questions, without relating your experience to someone else they know or something that they themselves had gone through. I would caution against making any comparisons to your experiences and theirs, even if you think it’s safe by prefacing it with “I know it’s not the same thing, but…” It may still feel like you are minimizing or distorting their experience to a degree. It’s safer to just stick to how your friend is feeling.
If they feel alone because nobody around them understands what they’re experiencing, and you actually do know someone who lived through a similar experience, offer to connect them by having lunch with each of them at the same time, or connect them on Facebook. I found a support group page for people with my rare form of cancer on Facebook, and that has been a great outlet to find others who understand what I’m going through. This could be a helpful suggestion, though some people might be resistant.
In general, I would say that you probably know your friend better than me, so it is up to you to try to gauge the conversation so you don’t push them too far. If you try to have a serious emotional talk, and there is resistance, maybe it is a better time to offer an escape, a laugh, or just a fun time.
Because everyone’s needs and feelings are different, and often changing from day to day, my first thought is that you should just ask your loved one how you can be there for them after their cancer diagnosis. Maybe they will give you an honest answer. Or maybe they don’t know what they’re feeling or needing, or they (like me) are a bit too prideful to let you know. Oftentimes those diagnosed with cancer don’t want to be a burden to their loved ones. So keep that in mind, and if you suspect that might be the case with your loved ones, there are some practical ways you can help meet their needs while assuaging their pride. Most likely some of these struggles below will affect your loved one, and you can help without having to say, “Let me know how I can help.” (Because they probably won’t.)
I had to drive three hours a day, round-trip, to my cancer treatment which lasted five weeks. It was exhausting, expensive, and could have been very lonely. My mom went with me most days, my mother-in-law and cousin pitched in, and one time a friend accompanied me, which actually made the trip a lot of fun! If your loved one is up for it, do something fun right after treatment. I have to caution you, depending on what treatment they received, they may just need rest afterwards. But if you’d like to share some fun experiences with them, don’t wait until they’re halfway through their treatment regimen. The side effects get worse and worse, so doing fun things during the first couple weeks might be the only opportunity until after they’ve recovered.
Depending on the treatment they’re receiving, your friend may be struggling to eat. Bringing food for the rest of the family can be helpful, especially if the cancer patient is the one who usually prepares meals for the family. Keep in mind that the cancer patient herself might not be able to eat the same foods as her family. Ask her or her family what she’s been eating, and bring that to her home. I lived on smoothies, so I needed lots of prepped vegetables, fruits, milled flax seed, and that sort of thing. My issue was that my mouth wasn’t producing saliva, and every time I tried to salivate (which was when I saw yummy food or put anything in my mouth) I would break out in painful blood blisters on my cheeks and under/around my tongue. Other people may have lost their appetite altogether, or may feel extremely nauseous and can only stomach certain foods. This is so frustrating and emotional for the patient, and having someone take care of your food can at least minimize the frustration as much as possible. My grandma loved ice cream when she went through chemo. I tried eating ice cream during my treatment and cried because I couldn’t taste it and it just gave me blisters in my mouth. For someone who is used to going to food for comfort, it’s a very emotional experience not being able to eat or taste food.
Cancer patients still have to go to work in most cases, and those patients with children are always on the clock. Offer to take the children to the park, library, or a fun destination that will get out their energy. Tell your friend to use this time to rest and take a nap. Before you leave, change the sheets on their bed, start a load of laundry, and finish the load when you return. Or maybe take laundry with you and bring it back clean and neatly folded the next day. That leads me to my next point.
Think of how difficult housework is to keep up with in your own home. And then imagine how difficult it is when you are losing hours a week traveling to doctors appointments, and then feeling zapped of all energy once you’re home. The cancer patient still feels like she should be contributing to housework, as ridiculous as that may seem. She still likes a clean house, and her children and pets still create messes while she rests on the sofa. The toilets are still being used, and dishes are piling up beside the sink. You know what I’m about to say. Go over there and be her housekeeper!
If you can’t clean the whole house, at least do dishes or take their laundry with you and bring it back neatly folded the next day.
It is incredibly awkward letting someone in your home to clean up after you, especially when you’re right there sitting on the sofa, feeling like a lazy bum, even though you’re just a cancer patient. So I recommend you team up with another helpful friend who will take your loved one out of the house while it’s being cleaned. They can do something fun and relaxing, like a pedicure, massage, or go to a movie. Then, the next week, you can go out and do the fun thing while your helpful friend stays and cleans.
Having a clean house is so refreshing, and can lift pounds of stress and anxiety from the shoulders of someone relaxing at home during cancer treatment. If you’re not able to clean for her because of distance or time, please consider hiring a regular maid service to help her for a month of two. She might not ever consider doing this for herself, but this sacrifice on your part might be the most support she’ll receive during her experience with cancer.
As I mentioned before, offer to get the children out of the house so your friend can rest. Or offer to stay at home with the kids while he or she runs errands or does something fun with another friend. Maybe your friend needs a date night, or just a night of uninterrupted sleep. Why not offer to keep the children overnight, or stay at her house to help out with babies and children through the night? I had cancer and a small baby at the same time, and having help with kids made me feel refreshed and stronger than ever.
Cancer takes a toll emotionally and physically, but it is incredibly overwhelming to most people financially. Many people would not admit to floundering financially, and would not feel comfortable taking money. But that doesn’t mean you can’t assist anonymously if you’re able. We had our church call us one day and tell us that someone anonymously wanted to know how much money we needed to pay off all of my medical bills. We were very uncomfortable with this, even though we believe this is what the church family is for, so we told them an amount that would certainly help (but would still leave us with debt), and then we received a money order for that amount in the mail. Of course I cried all the way to the bank. Another friend arranged a fund amongst some of my friends from the old days of scrapbook blogging and message boards. They all gave what they could, and it added up to be very helpful to pay some of our bills. Yes, I cried again.
Maybe if you feel like your friend won’t be comfortable with receiving money (anonymously or otherwise), you could send gift cards to grocery stores, gas stations, or retail shops. Retail gift cards might seem like an impractical way to help, but I know that if I received money, it would go directly to my medical bills, and I would feel guilty spending it on anything else. Giving a retail gift card gives that person permission to indulge in some retail therapy, or provide a Christmas for their family that they once thought was impossible after their cancer diagnosis.
I remember wanting to go on a trip with Phil, because I didn’t know what our future held, and I felt the immediacy of my relationship with him, and of course with my whole family. But we didn’t have the money. So we never did. Someday, I want to be so on top of our finances that I can afford to buy a getaway for a friend who, God forbid, might have cancer, so she can have some quality time with her husband. This is just an idea for those who are well off financially and who want to know ways they can dramatically support a loved one with cancer.
First of all, I know these might not be true for everyone, but they were true for me. And if you said or did one of these things to me when I was diagnosed, please don’t feel bad. I’m just glad that you cared enough to reach out and try to be supportive. But also, just know that these aren’t the best things to do or say, so if you want to be sensitive to your loved one with cancer, read about the things that I’d suggest staying away from.
You might ask them if they’re happy with their care, and if they’re not, you may then ask if they’re interested in alternative medicine. If the answer is yes, then by all means connect them with a homeopathic doctor you trust.
Even if the story had a happy ending, it can across as desperate for good news and encouragement, which inadvertently tells them that their situation is so sad you need to manufacture hope. Your friend with cancer is unique, and the struggle they’re embarking on is unique. Everyone’s diagnosis is different, as is their treatment, prognosis, and certainly the type of cancer. I was in a unique position because the type of cancer I have is extremely rare, and it isn’t made up of cancer cells like most others. It is cancerous in behavior only, and there’s not much known about the tumors themselves. Most likely nobody personally knew someone with my same type of cancer, and even if they did, our stories would be vastly different. This is another reason why suggesting forms of treatment or doctors is a bit ridiculous. I doubt if many homeopathic doctors know anything about cancerous paragangliomas, and it’s just exhausting trying to explain this to people who brought up alternative treatment ideas. So I would usually just smile and nod, and be a bit worked up on the inside.
Now this is not to say that you can’t say something like, “My brother-in-law has cancer too.” Or, “My aunt has cancer too. I’m not quite sure how to be there for them.” This is a way of connecting, and isn’t necessarily relating someone else’s experience to your loved one’s experience. I guess if you’re wondering, you can always ask, “Does it frustrate you when people tell you stories about other people they know with cancer?”
Again, feel free to ask if they’re interested in more information about new treatment options or centers you’ve heard about, or about support groups that could be helpful. If the answer is yes, then by all means, provide them with material. But I would always ask first.
Perhaps you bought something with a ribbon on it to donate your money in support of those with cancer, and you’d like your friend with cancer to know and feel your support. So you give it to them as a gift. But I personally wouldn’t know what to do with something like that practically speaking, and besides, why would donate to a charity supporting those with cancer, when someone in need of financial support is right in front of you? Maybe it’s awkward to offer financial help, but I already mentioned a bunch of financial ways you can that might be less awkward than just writing a check. I guarantee however you could financially help, it will be more appreciated than the cancer tchotchkes.
As convinced as you may be that your loved one is being fleeced by a flawed medical industry, telling them about it is not helpful. It makes their experience more about you and your ideas than about them and their plight. Clearly they have confidence in their doctors and the medical field or they would be pursuing alternative forms of treatment. Just spouting off your theories and vitriol of the industry will shake up your loved one and may take away one of the few confidences they have— confidence in their caregivers.
These are all good things to think about and consider, but the best way you can help someone with cancer is to quit overanalyzing everything and just be there for them! Show your care and concern. Offer your prayers, and don’t feel the need to always tell them that you’re praying. Just pray, if that’s what you’re convicted to do. Tell them you’re thinking about them. Send them flowers. And let them know that they are loved will never be forgotten.
For those interested in my cancer journey, here are some past posts I’ve written about my experiences.
- The one where I told you about the tumor and my month-long illness.
- The one where I told you my scary thoughts about facing a very serious surgery.
- The one where I tell you about my unexpectedly difficult surgery and fears of cancer.
- The one where I told you I have cancer.
- The one where I talk about how my thoughts and life were affected by news of cancer.
- The one where I talk about life after cancer treatment.
- The one where I look back on my cancer experience, one year later.
All illustrations are created by Adrienne Adams for the 1962 children’s book “What Makes a Shadow?”