How to support someone with cancer

When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to know how to help. Here are a few ways you can be a good support.

Written by Rebecca Howden

Cancer can bring with it a wild thunderstorm of emotions. It can hurtle into your life quickly and dramatically, forcing you to press pause. It can shake up your sense of self, and make you reevaluate your plans, goals and vision of the future. It can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally.

This is something Juliet Viney knows well. Breast cancer has interrupted her life twice – first in 2000, and again in 2012.

“People are very aware of chemotherapy and surgeries. They know the treatment can be pretty gruelling,” she says. “What people are often not aware of is how it impacts you emotionally, and how it impacts your sense of self and your confidence.

“I’ve always been a very self-assured and confident person, but it really does rock your world. One day you’re working 60 hours a week. The next minute you’re in surgery and you don’t know where your life’s going from there.”

Having social and emotional support through this challenging time is essential. And sometimes, the best person to talk to is someone who’s been through it all themselves. As a survivor, Viney is now volunteering with Cancer Council Victoria’s Cancer Connect service to share her story with others.

Cancer Connect is a phone service that connects people affected by cancer with trained volunteers who have been through similar experiences. It matches people based on things like cancer type, treatment, age and family circumstances. This allows them to discuss concerns and challenges in an open and compassionate way.

“They’ve been there and done that, so often they come up with gems of advice that the rest of us might not think of,” says Monica Conway, nurse manager at Cancer Council Victoria.

“A cancer diagnosis can shift a person’s sense of self. Everything changes quickly, so having emotional support and connection can really help.”

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How to be a good support

When someone in your life is going through cancer, it can be difficult to know what to do. Everyone is different and there are no set rules. The most important thing is to be there and offer your love and empathy. Here are a few ways you can be a good support.

Start with “I’m here for you”

It’s normal to feel lost for words – but don’t let that stop you from saying anything at all. Conway suggests starting with simple phrases to express that you love them and want to help. Things like “I care for you and I’m here for you” or “If you feel like talking, I’m here to listen” can go a long way.

Listen and let them lead

Give the person space to talk – or not talk – in whatever way they need. “Listen without judgment,” Conway advises. "Be present and give them your full attention, and don’t jump in and try to fix their problems immediately. Notice their cues and respond to them.”

When you’re trying to help, it’s easy to make assumptions about what the person needs. But remember that you don’t know what’s in their heads – even if you have been through something similar.

“Let the person with cancer tell you what they need,” Viney says. “Everyone’s different, and you need to take the time to understand that it doesn’t only affect people physically – there will be other impacts too.”

Offer practical support

The side effects of cancer treatment can be exhausting. Offering help with everyday tasks and chores can help make things that little bit easier. Let them know you're there to help, and suggest specific examples of what you could do. You could offer things like:

  • Doing the grocery shopping
  • Cooking meals (especially things they can freeze for later)
  • Cleaning, laundry, gardening or other chores around the house
  • Babysitting or taking the kids to and from school
  • Walking the dog
  • Picking up prescriptions
  • Making difficult phone calls or gathering research and resources they may need
  • Transport to and from appointments
  • Coming along to appointments to take notes

Let them be independent when they can

While offering practical support is important, don’t force your help on them or feel offended if they decline your offer. “Be comfortable if the person says they don’t need it at the moment,” Conway says. “Just leave the door open, so if they change their mind down the track they’re still comfortable coming back to you.”

Viney adds that she appreciated being allowed to do things herself when she felt able to. “Being patient with me was important,” she says. “Sometimes I could do things, sometimes I couldn’t. So it was good when people let me try and be independent where I could, but be there for me when I couldn’t.”

Allow space for sadness

When someone is struggling, it’s a natural reaction to try to cheer them up. But being overly positive and saying things like, “Don’t worry” and, “I’m sure you’ll be fine” can come across as dismissive of their feelings.

As hard as it can be, Conway advises listening and letting them express their sadness, worry and fear. Try responding with something like, “It’s reasonable to be feeling sad – I can hear it’s been really hard.”

Don’t overwhelm them with your emotions

Your distress might be intense, but be mindful of how strongly you express it to them. For many people with serious illnesses, it can feel like they also have to make their loved ones feel better about it. “Of course it’s okay to show your sadness, but try not to overwhelm them with your emotions when they’re working through their own feelings,” Conway says.

If you’re finding it difficult to cope, make sure you get support for yourself. Talking to another family member or trusted friend or to your GP or a psychologist can help you process the experience and manage your emotions. The Cancer Council also offers support services for family and friends that can help.

Find out more about Cancer Connect and other cancer support services at cancervic.org.au and cancercouncil.com.au or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

Written by Rebecca Howden

Rebecca Howden has been writing about arts, culture, lifestyle and health for over 10 years. She reads too many books and has a cat named Gatsby.

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