When you have a loved one diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to know exactly how to support them. You may not know your role in their cancer journey, how they are coping with their diagnosis, what types of support they need or how to manage your own difficult emotions. Katie Ozuna, LMSW, OSW-C, OPN-CG, a survivorship navigator and psychosocial oncology coordinator at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Medical City Healthcare, offers four tips to help support you in this role.

Tip #1 – Don't overcommit.

“Take the time to think about the ways you're able to help,” says Katie. “We often have the best of intentions, but don't evaluate what we can actually manage on top of our own responsibilities.”

For instance, someone who is retired may have more bandwidth to provide time-dependent support than someone with a full-time job. You may not be able to pick up groceries or walk their dog, but maybe you can offer to help create a support page online. Caring Bridge is a great example of an online support page where you can create a personalized page for your survivor where they (or you!) can share news and updates, communicate with all their caregivers and coordinate day-to-day help.

There are also ways to help if you don't live in the same area, including:

  • Have dinner or groceries delivered
  • Offer to coordinate their caregivers and daily tasks
  • Send them books, CDs, crosswords or Sudoku puzzles, or a magazine subscription—these can be helpful distractions during lengthy chemotherapy sessions
  • Offer to research different support services such as support groups, financial assistance, house cleaning or transportation to appointments
  • Update family and friends
  • Send handwritten cards or letters of support
  • Gift comfort items, like a cozy robe or soft slippers

Send gift cards for food, groceries, gas, etc.

Tip #2 - Encourage your loved one to guide you in how to help them.

“Everyone is different,” says Katie. “You want to take cues from your loved one on how to offer the support that is best for them.”

This is the most important tip in supporting your loved one. Remember that there are no set rules for how to support them, and every friendship and relationship is different.

For instance, while delivering food or flowers are thoughtful, for those struggling with food or smell aversions, they may be unwelcomed. Maybe they would prefer creating a photo album or a memory quilt with you. Ask your loved one what would be meaningful for them, and go from there!

If your loved one declines support, reiterate that you are there for them and that it would bring you joy to support them. Even if your loved one isn't ready to receive support or talk about their cancer, sometimes just knowing they have someone to support them can provide the most comfort.

Tip #3 – Just listen.

“Offer to listen to your loved one without judgement or without giving advice,” Katie says. “No matter how well-meaning your advice may be, many cancer patients and survivors just want to know someone is in their corner and ready to support them.”

Good questions always allow your loved one to lead the conversation. Two great questions are, “how are you feeling today?” or “how can I support you?” These are great ways to kick off a conversation.

Stay away from saying things like “don't cry!” or “everything happens for a reason!” Responses like that minimize the experience of a cancer survivor, and may be said to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. Remember, the purpose of your conversations should be to create a safe place for your loved one to express all their emotions, which will commonly include sadness, anger and frustration.

As far as offering advice, only offer it when it's asked for. Offering unsolicited advice such as, “have you tried this diet I heard of?” or “this product worked for my brother's friend who had cancer!” is strongly discouraged. You should focus on questions that let your loved one guide you from where they are mentally and emotionally. Sometimes you don't need to say anything at all—just listen!

If you don't know what to say, stick to something neutral and supportive. Simply saying, “I'm here for you” gets to the heart of your intentions. Remember, you're listening to understand your loved one's cancer journey in a meaningful way and to provide them an outlet for these hard emotions.

Tip #4 - Find your own caregivers.

Supporting someone with cancer can bring up a lot of emotions, and it can be common for caregivers to feel, sadness, anger, worry and stress. There is no “right” way to feel—each person is different. It's important to know you are not alone in these hard emotions and there are ways to support yourself in this role:

  • Support groups can help you connect with others who understand the struggles of caregiving, and gives space for you to share practical advice.
  • Online groups such as Facebook offer the same support, just on a digital platform. These are perfect for anyone feeling like they can't leave their home or loved one, anyone who is busy, or where there isn't an in-person support group nearby.
  • One-on-one counseling is great for any caregiver or friend feeling overwhelmed with a family or friend's cancer diagnosis, no matter how small or large those feelings are. Counselors are great for unraveling complicated feelings and giving you practical tools to manage those feelings.

Ultimately, be the leader for those around you on how to best support you as a caregiver. You are your own best advocate!

Additional resources:

American Cancer Society: How to be a friend to someone with cancer

Cancer Support Community: Friends & Family

If you or someone you know needs help with getting back to daily life activities after cancer treatment, assistance is available. To find trusted and vetted local and national resources for patients and caregivers in one convenient place, free of charge, read Getting Back to life: Helping cancer survivors thrive.

A cancer diagnosis can be confusing, but you don't have to handle it alone.

Have a question? askSarah

tags: survivorship