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12 Tips for Supporting a Loved One With Cancer


Updated May 16, 2014

For someone living with cancer, the support of family and friends is critical in their journey. Yet, a diagnosis of cancer often catches everyone by surprise, and shifts the roles we are accustomed to playing. Those of us that have not personally struggled with cancer, though well meaning, are unable to understand completely what our loved one is going through emotionally and physically. As we face this new territory, what are some tips we can use to help support our loved one through their often-lonely journey?

1. Consciously Listen

Simply listening to someone with cancer may sound easy, but is often times surprisingly hard. We want to make things better. We want to fix things. But a listening ear is often what “helps” the most. Let your loved one express their feelings, even if those feelings make you uncomfortable. You can be fairly certain that if your loved one brings up a difficult topic, such as dying, they have been thinking about it. Allow them the opportunity to have the comfort of sharing. Don’t judge, don’t interrupt, and listen with your eyes and body, not only your ears.

2. Deal With Your Own Feelings First

As caregivers, we are faced with our own set of difficult emotions and fears. What will happen to my loved one? Will they have pain? Will they live? What will happen to me? How will my life change? Try to face your own fears first, so you are truly able to listen attentively.

3. Say “I Love You” Often

No matter how much your actions express your love, it is not a substitute for hearing it. Affirm them. Praise their efforts. Even if the only thing they can do after a round of chemotherapy is brush their teeth, let them know they are special and valued.

4. Lend a Hand

For those with lung cancer, life goes on despite running for treatment and side effects like fatigue. Bills accumulate. Dust gathers. Something as simple as offering to help clean house for an hour is often deeply appreciated. Offer help and make it specific. “Can I come over Wednesday at 2 PM and wash a few windows?” Don’t wait for your loved one to ask for help.

5. Go With Them to Appointments

Attending appointments with your loved one can express your caring in many ways. Hospitals and clinics can be frightening places and waiting can be excruciating. Bring a notepad. Ask questions. Take notes. But make sure to allow your loved one to make their own decisions.

6. Add a Touch of Humor

Humor can be the best medicine. Be sensitive to the times that your loved one needs to express grief, but be ready to laugh and smile with them as well.

7. Respect Their Need to Be Alone

Sometimes our loved ones with cancer claim they want to be alone so they don’t bother us, but other times, they truly want to be alone. Monitor other visitors as well. Does your loved one feel that he or she has to entertain them, but does not want to offend them and ask them to go? If so, gently let these other visitors know when your loved one appears tired and thank them for visiting.

8. Be a Gatherer – Of Information

Having information appears to ease some of the anxiety those with cancer face. Research your loved ones disease online, ask your cancer center for information, take notes, and ask questions at doctors’ appointments.

9. Don’t Hide Things From Them or Other Loved Ones

Our loved ones with lung cancer need an honest assessment of their condition to make decisions that best fit their needs – even if that honesty is painful. Be honest with other family members, and especially children. We want to protect our children from the reality of what their parent or grandparent may be facing, but children often imagine the worst. Even if the prognosis is poor, sharing with them honestly gives them the opportunity to begin their grieving and express their love.

10. Help Them Find Support

No matter how much someone without cancer can empathize, talking to someone facing the same challenges can be invaluable for someone facing cancer. Ask your cancer center for information on support groups. Many online support groups are available as well. If your loved one is not interested in a support group, perhaps your oncologist or cancer center can find someone with a similar cancer who would be willing to visit one-on-one.

11. Be Willing to Bend

Family members often have many different opinions when a loved one has cancer, based on their own life experiences. Friction often develops, and hurt and resentment can follow. Your loved one does not want to be the source of family conflict. Try to hear each other’s viewpoints, no matter how dissimilar they may seem. Keep in mind that all of you have a common goal; you all want to support your loved one.

12. Take Care of Yourself

Eating healthy, trying to get enough sleep, and maintaining a balance in your own life, will help you provide the support your loved one needs. Check out further tips for caregivers to nurture yourself as you care for others.

Further Reading:

A great resource I keep at my bedside is lung cancer survivor Lori Hope's book, Let Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know. No matter how hard we try to walk in the shoes of someone with cancer, it helps to hear the thoughts, desires, and wishes shared by people who have actually walked that diffiult road.

National Cancer Institute. When Someone You Love Has Advanced Cancer. Accessed 04/03/08 at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/When-Someone-You-Love-Has-Advanced-Cancer/page1.

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