18 Ways You Can Support a Loved One With Cancer

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and Certified Master Guardian

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A diagnosis of cancer can be a devastating experience for everyone involved. Whether it is a friend, a loved one or a family member, finding out that someone has cancer may be a shock. Your initial response might be something like, “what should I say and what can I do to help?” 

Jump ahead to these sections:

It is normal to feel overwhelmed, sad, angry, and confused. The word “cancer” itself is so frightening that it can cause a sort of emotional paralysis. You may be searching for some concrete ideas on how to support someone with this diagnosis. We’ve listed quite a few below to provide some inspiration.

While not every suggestion of support may be appropriate for your loved one, try to go with what feels right to you.

How to Support a Family Member With Cancer

Whether it is your sister, brother, partner, parent, or any other family member, they may be a core part of your life.

The special relationships and bonds that connect families are deep and sometimes complicated. If you need help knowing how to approach and support a family member, these tips may be of help.

1. Control your emotions, but be honest

When someone receives a diagnosis of cancer, the range and intensity of emotions can be overwhelming. Controlling your own emotions may be difficult, but your emotional stability is what your family member needs now. 

When we are upset, angry, or confused, we look to others to give us an emotional anchor to hold on to. You can be that person. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore or hide what you are feeling. Try being calm, but not dispassionate. Your emotions are important too and they show that you care.

One suggestion is to express those emotions with other family members. They too are probably experiencing similar feelings. Having family gatherings where people are free to talk about their feelings can be liberating and comforting.

2. Listen

It can be hard to know what to say and when to say it. Listening is sometimes the best thing you can do for your family member. This allows them to feel heard, understood and valued. By listening, you will get a much better understanding of what your loved one is feeling and what they need.

Some suggestions for good listening tips are the following:

  • Maintain eye contact and focus your attention. It can help to have privacy with few distractions. If your family member is in the hospital, we suggest shutting the door to keep noise out.
  • Although it is human nature to want to “help” and solve problems, only do so if you are asked to.
  • Silence is ok. Sometimes those empty spaces allow both of you to collect your thoughts and emotions.

3. Expect a range of responses and emotions

A cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence for many people. Depending on the diagnosis and prognosis, recovery is possible. But, the treatment for cancer can be arduous, painful, and prolonged.

For someone who has cancer, the unknown can be the most frightening part of the experience. Knowing that strong emotional responses are expected can help you be compassionate and supportive. You can expect any number of the following responses:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Confusion
  • Guilt
  • Loneliness
  • Grief
  • Fear
  • Resentment

4. Put aside family differences

Family dynamics can be complicated. Current and past conflicts or disagreements can come into focus during times of stress. These problems, if not put aside, can make a difficult situation worse.

Try suggesting a family meeting where everyone agrees to a “truce” of sorts. A united, caring and compassionate family unit will support your loved one and help to keep everyone on an emotionally even keel. If possible, agree that any family conflicts that can’t be contained are not to be discussed in front of your family member who is sick.

5. Have difficult conversations

Depending on the situation, difficult conversations can include end-of-life planning and estate planning. For someone diagnosed with cancer, there can be treatment decisions that require support and sometimes advice.

Don’t be afraid to be involved when you are asked, or gently ask about advance directives. Offer to help arrange those if they have not already been done. This may involve connecting your family member with an estate planning attorney.

6. Be positive, supportive, and realistic

No one likes a Pollyanna attitude that doesn’t acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. A positive attitude is so important because it takes an enormous amount of energy to fight cancer.  Can you imagine how exhausting it is to be frightened, confused, and afraid of death? 

Your energy and positive messages for your loved one can be a vital tonic to help them fight and recover. Consider putting on an imaginary positive and healing armor each time you see your loved one. 

How to Support a Friend With Cancer

It is good to recognize that not everything needs to be done at once. Take your time to transition to levels of support that mirror the emotional journey of your loved one. Some people need immediate emotional support. Others are anxious about tasks and duties that need to be done right now.

7. Reach out immediately

Try not to wait to reach out to a friend because you don’t know what to say or how to react. That delay can turn into days and weeks before you know it. When you do reach out, consider simply saying “how are you?” An open-ended question like this may provide the opening for an honest conversation.

Try to make the call as soon as you can. If you are unable to reach your friend by phone, send a card or letter and ask for a good time to call or visit. Check out our tips for reconnecting with a friend if you'd like more advice.

8. Provide emotional support 

Emotional support can take many forms. Here are some of our suggestions:

  • Listen without judgment.
  • Ask your friend what might be helpful. This could include sharing music, a book, or a movie.
  • If appropriate, ask your friend if they need spiritual support and offer to help with that.
  • Allow for sadness and crying.

9. Visit with permission and know when it is time to leave

People who have been diagnosed with cancer and are undergoing treatment are often exhausted. They often don’t look their best. They might be embarrassed or humiliated by their condition.

Call and ask when a good time to visit might be. Be mindful when you are visiting that people with cancer can tire easily and several short visits might be best.

10. Offer to go to appointments

If your friend has a partner or spouse that may be unable to attend medical appointments, here is your chance to be of help.

When you go, try to take good notes during the appointment so you can relay the information to others who may need it.

11. Suggest specific tasks or errands

Finding the time and energy to run errands can be a challenge during treatment. They may feel ashamed in asking for help with tasks, so try to bring it up yourself organically. Ask if they need help with any particular tasks such as the following:

  • Grocery shopping
  • Cleaning the house
  • Making a meal
  • Laundry
  • Picking up prescriptions

12. Laughter is the best medicine

Laughter is healing and can relieve the anxiety and fear associated with being sick. Ask your friend for suggestions on renting a movie or watching a tv series that might be uplifting and humorous. 

How to Support Someone With Cancer From Afar

Supporting someone from afar can seem like an impossible task at first. But giving support does not have to be difficult, no matter how far away you might be. As long as you are willing to help out, you can be truly supportive in ways that are compassionate and helpful.

13. Stay in touch

Life is busy and time can slip away before you know it. Meanwhile, your loved one or friend may be lonely and suffering.

One way to keep yourself on track is to schedule a time to call with your support. Possible ways to do this are an alert on your phone or schedule on a calendar. 

14. Don’t forget the caregiver

Sometimes, as we focus on our loved one or friend who has cancer, we forget about the primary caregiver. This could be a spouse, partner, or other relatives.

Think about reaching out to see how they are doing and what they may need. Your emotional support will be appreciated. 

15. Offer to do research or assist with legal matters

When someone is dealing with cancer, several issues can come up. These include treatment decisions, estate planning documents, or finding healthcare providers. As a way of suggesting your support, ask about helping with these matters.

16. Send gifts

Receiving thoughtful gifts can light up someone’s day. Gift-giving shows that you are thinking about the person and that you care. Sending a creative gift or a care package especially when someone is going through chemotherapy can make all the difference.

Some ideas for a personal gift could include books, movies, word games, small mementos, or special personal care products.

17. Arrange for in-home services

For a person who has cancer, everyday tasks can get neglected. The house may not get cleaned, lawn care is deferred and even primary caregiver duties can be strained. You may want to propose helping to arrange for these services from a distance.

18. Visit if you can

If you can, try to visit in person. Depending on the circumstances, time may be of the essence. The timing of your visit might be difficult to determine, but ask family members of your friend or loved one for advice on when it is best to visit.

Supporting Someone With Cancer 

Your love, support, and care for someone with cancer can make a significant difference in their journey. Above all, showing that you care while a loved one is dealing with a difficult time can make your bond grow stronger.

Perhaps these suggestions may inspire you to express compassion and hope in ways you never thought possible. 

Let a loved one know you're thinking of them.
Send a care package to show you care. 

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