If a loved one has recently been diagnosed with cancer, it can feel like the elephant in the room. You may be wondering what you should say and do—if anything—and how you can offer support during a difficult time.
“Research has found that when people with cancer receive support from their family, friends they tend to have better physical and emotional health,” says Pallavi Rastogi, MD, oncologist at the Cancer Center at Paoli Hospital, part of Main Line Health. “While everyone’s cancer journey is different, there’s almost always something that you can do or say that will make a difference.”
Talk to them
It can be difficult to know how to respond when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. While there’s no “right” thing to say, keep these tips in mind:
- Offer your condolences, but not pity.
- “I’m so sorry that you are going through this” or “I am so sorry. What can I do to help?”
- Continue to discuss other topics in life, like work, relationships and hobbies.
- Don’t offer your opinions on medical treatment or care choices.
- Support their feelings, even if the person feels angry, upset or negative.
- Avoid using cliché words like “hero,” “brave” or “strong” to describe them. Many people with cancer may not feel these words apply to them.
While talking and engaging with your loved one is important, be respectful of their needs. If they’ve recently been diagnosed, give them a few days to process this news. And, if they’d prefer not to discuss their cancer, respect their wishes.
Stay in contact
While your friend or loved one probably doesn’t want any extra attention, the person will likely appreciate it if you make a point to stay in touch with them throughout their treatment. This can be a weekly phone call, handwritten note or even a text message that lets them know you’re thinking of them.
You can also continue to include your friend or loved one in social plans. While they may decline, they’ll likely feel grateful that they were asked to participate.
Show physical gestures of love
Conversation is important, but so are physical gestures of love. This can be a hug, holding hands or even reaching out to touch the person’s arm. The physical side effects of cancer, like hair loss or weight loss, may make your loved one feel self-conscious, and these physical signals of intimacy and love can be meaningful.
Pay them a visit
“Fighting a cancer battle is overwhelming and, at times, it can feel very lonely. Physically being there for your friend or family member is one way to help them feel supported and less alone,” says Kathleen Sacharian, a nurse practitioner with the Survivorship Program of the Cancer Center at Paoli Hospital.
If you do visit a loved one, keep in mind that they may not be willing to talk or visit as long as usual. Always call ahead to make sure they’re accepting visitors, and don’t overstay.
It may also be helpful to bring a book or other activity with you to keep you busy if your friend is feeling tired, particularly if you will accompany them to treatment sessions at a hospital or an outpatient center. Remember that you are there for support, and shouldn’t need to be entertained.
Offer assistance with daily activities
While your friend or family member may want to maintain as normal a life as possible, the physical side effects of cancer can make it difficult to keep up with a growing to-do list.
“Approach your friend and offer to help with tasks like meal preparation, house cleaning or carpooling. They may need help but feel uncomfortable asking for it, and your invitation offers them the opportunity to speak up,” says Sacharian. “If they don’t want help, however, be respectful of these boundaries.”
Support the caregiver
Cancer is a difficult disease for the person who is diagnosed, but it can also take a toll on family members and caregivers. You can offer support to these individuals, too. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help them as they provide care for their loved one, like sitting with the patient or offering to help with transportation.
The path to survivorship
With advances in medicine, millions of people are living with cancer than ever before. For that reason, we established the Survivorship Program—a program designed to help patients transition to life following treatment, by alleviating some of their common concerns.