32 Ways to Support a Loved One With a Cancer Diagnosis

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

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” my loved one with cancer.

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. 

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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.

How to Support Someone With Cancer at Work

Continuing to work while coping with cancer treatment can be exhausting. For many people, leaving their job is not an option because they need the income and want to feel that they have a purpose. If someone you know confides in you that they have cancer, it is an opportunity for you to support them. 

19. Respect their privacy

Just because someone at work confides in you that they have cancer does not mean that you should share the information with others in the workplace. Any medical information is private, and only the person has the right to share it. It can be tempting to let this information out during informal gatherings, but please don’t do it. It is important to remember that medical information is personal and confidential. Doing so could be very hurtful.

20. Offer to investigate benefits

Most people don’t know what support their employer offers until they need it. For someone at work with cancer, they most likely don’t have the energy to find out what could help. Some employers have employee assistance programs that offer counseling.

Other possible supports include paid family medical leave or flexible work schedules. You can do the groundwork and take the time to organize these benefits. If your co-worker wants to talk with their supervisor about these benefits, offer to accompany them to the appointment for support. 

21. Suggest carpooling

If you and your co-worker have the same schedule, offer to provide transportation to and from work. It may not seem like much, but anything you can do to help conserve your co-worker’s energy can be very helpful. The drive time will also allow the two of you to talk about the diagnosis, which could be very therapeutic. It might also give you some ideas on how else you can offer support. 

22. Keep the relationship as normal as possible

When someone is coping with cancer and working, they could feel sensitive to being treated differently or with special treatment. Try to avoid special work favors or suggesting that they aren’t up to the workload. You want to treat them with respect and dignity.

23. Be open to talking

Even though you may not be close to a work colleague, you might be a comfortable person to talk to because you don’t see them socially. Without prying, simply be open to whatever your co-worker may want to talk about. If things get too personal or time-consuming for you, suggest that you meet briefly after work to discuss.

How to Support Someone With Terminal Cancer

When you find out someone you care about has terminal cancer, it can be a shock. You may need a bit of time to process your feelings and think about the best way to support the person. Everyone is different, and each person will deal with a terminal diagnosis of cancer in their own way. 

24. Expect the unexpected

Regardless of your relationship to a person diagnosed with terminal cancer, the person you have come to know and care about could change. Remember, the experience isn’t about you. It is about them. Your loved one or friend might act in ways that you haven’t seen before. They could be angry, sad, overwhelmed, depressed, and anxious. Your job is to accept these emotions without judgment.

25. Don’t encourage false hope

It is normal to cope with your feelings about losing someone by thinking that a miracle will occur. Try and accept the fact that the person you care about will die. Touting cures or other ideas about treatment is not helpful and could be very harmful. However, if the person with cancer indicates they want people to be positive, then do that. Bring as much joy, laughter, and love into the journey as possible. 

26. Offer to help with logistical tasks

Getting one’s affairs in order is a necessary and arduous task. You can help by putting together a list of items that need completion, such as advance directives, a will, arranging for pet care, settling bills, preparing to close accounts, and much more. When the time seems right, offer to help and ask the person what they need to accomplish.

Offering to help organize can be a true gift and a significant relief. You can also suggest that you can be the “spokesperson” for concerned friends and family members by giving regular updates and information.

27. Ask questions

It is normal to feel like you should know what to do, but you don’t. It is OK to ask questions such as “what do you need most right now?” If the person doesn’t want to talk or can’t express what they need, that is fine. Offer without pressure. Sometimes just being present is enough.

28. Talk about the real world

People with a terminal diagnosis can feel isolated and removed from the world. If it seems appropriate, talk about people or subjects that you have in common. Be sensitive to their responses. If this approach doesn’t resonate, then move on.

How to Support Someone With a Family Member Who Has Cancer

When someone with a family member has cancer, you might feel removed from the situation. Your support does depend on the nature of your relationship with the family member. Are you close, or is it a distant relationship? Is the person who has cancer-related to you? In any case, take on the responsibility of doing what you can to support that person by following these tips. Use your judgment on what seems appropriate and helpful. 

29. Say that you would like to help

If you ask, “is there anything I can do,” chances are the response will be, “no, there is nothing.” Instead, say that you would like to help. Then, follow up by having an open and honest discussion with your friend about what they are doing. You can gain some insight into the person’s responsibilities and what they need from you. Show that you are sincere in your offer to help by making suggestions. 

30. Offer emotional support

Offering emotional support is sometimes as simple as being truly present. Allow the person space and time to talk and express their feelings. Let them set the pace of the conversation and let things flow naturally.

It is OK to be curious and ask questions about how the family member is doing and even specifics about treatment and prognosis. Let the person know you are there for them and that you will get through this together. You could be surprised by how much or little the person needs from you. Try to be flexible and accommodating. 

31. Suggest some diversions

Sometimes, dealing with a family member with cancer can be physically and emotionally draining. Offer some diversions like a walk in the park or visiting with friends or anything that you know can bring some relief and comfort. Don’t hesitate to ask what your friend might prefer and make sure it happens by scheduling the activity.  

32. Don’t disappear

You may feel that once you have done your duty and made yourself available a couple of times, then that’s all that is needed. Remember that the person dealing with a family member with cancer doesn’t have the option to disappear. Stay connected by scheduling calls or visits in your calendar to check-in. Life can get busy, and before you know it, too much time has passed by. 

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. 

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