How can I help a loved one with cancer?



Jo Riley

Director at CancerPal
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Tel: 07852994621

How can I help a loved one with cancer?

When someone we love is diagnosed with cancer, it can be hard to know what to do or say to help and support them. We often worry that we might say the wrong thing and inadvertently upset them or do the wrong thing and somehow make things worse. When a friend or family member receives a cancer diagnosis, many of us will take a step back, not wanting to intrude or get in the way. But this is a time when our loved ones’ need us the most and there’s lots of evidence to show that having a strong support network improves a cancer patient’s experience. People with cancer find it encouraging to have others who listen and help with the practical aspects of dealing with cancer. Having family members and loved ones around them for this kind of support can help reduce the patient’s distress as well as the distress of those who care about them. If you’re looking for ways to help and support a loved one going through cancer, we’ve got lots of ideas and tips to help.

Emotional Support

Emotional support is often described as behaviour which assures the person that they are loved and valued. It is also described as a physical presence, empathy, expressed concern, affection, special understanding, love, concern, reassurance, encouragement and closeness with another person in whom the recipient can confide. Emotional support can involve talking about things and boosting a loved one’s spirits and can also involve providing physical comfort such as a hug, hand hold or even a pat on the back. Providing emotional support to a loved one with cancer is not easy. You want to be there for your friend or family member, but at the same time, you’re also hurting and feeling emotional. You may worry that displaying your own emotion could end up hurting them rather than helping. But being open and sensitive to how your loved one is feeling is what most people need. Knowing you are there for them will really help. It might also be helpful to process your own emotions before talking to your loved one. Taking time to acknowledge and cope with your own emotions about the diagnosis before you see them can help you keep the focus on your loved one. It’s also OK to let your loved one know that you don’t know what to say or how to help. Telling your loved one that you’re there for them and that you want to help is often enough. Above all though, the most important piece of emotional support you can provide is to ‘show up’. “I’m here for you” is a platitude that’s often uttered when a loved one is struggling, so be sure to follow up on it. Be physically present if your loved one is well enough for visitors and regularly check in with messages and calls depending on what they prefer. In short, if you’re saying that you’re there for them, make sure that you are.

Instrumental or Practical Support

People dealing with cancer often find they have lower energy levels than they’re used to, so lending a helping hand with household chores and errands can provide some welcome relief and there are multiple ways you can offer this kind of practical support. You could offer to take care of urgent errands. Whether it’s grocery shopping, mailing a letter or a household chore, taking care of something your loved one deems urgent will go a long way in showing your support. Your loved one may however feel awkward about reaching out for help, so you could try taking the initiative and look for ways you may be able to help them out. For example, if you’re going to the supermarket you could drop them a text asking if they want you to pick up some milk and bread for them while you’re there, or pick up their prescription while you’re passing the chemist. If you’re cooking a curry, you could offer to make a few extra portions for them. Cancer treatment often involves endless medical appointments and offering to drive your loved one to some of these appointments is likely to be welcomed. You could also think about the little things your friend enjoys and that make life ‘normal’ for them and offer to help make these activities easier. For example, when my Mum was too poorly to go to the cinema, I took the cinema to her, which basically meant ordering a film on Netflix and taking over a load of munchies. This was really simple for me to organise, but I know Mum appreciated the gesture and also really enjoyed the experience as it was something normal to do in amongst all of the cancer chaos. They say that having cancer is a full-time job and they weren’t joking!

Informational Support

Many cancer patients can feel overwhelmed with all of the information they need to amass and understand in order to make major decisions – often with little time. Offering informational support could involve conducting internet research though reputable and trusted cancer sites, collating and condensing the information for your loved one so they don’t have to muddle though a mound of paperwork. Alternatively, if you’re not comfortable researching medical information, you could look for tips to help ease the symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments. When my Mum was first diagnosed with cancer, I felt completely helpless, frustrated and isolated. But as a result of a lot of late night Googling, I realised there are actually a wide array of products that can help relieve some of the symptoms, from skin creams and balms to sweets to aid nausea or take away a metallic taste, but family & friends don’t always know about this or struggle to find the products to purchase. This is exactly why I set up CancerPal ( – to share information and knowledge and to provide support and products to others who are affected by cancer and I hope this article has provided you with some quick ways in which you can support your loved one going forward. Remember, different people will have a preference for a certain type of support. And of course you don’t have to offer ALL of the support – that’s why it’s so important that your loved one has a support network they can rely on – you just need to pick 1 or 2 ideas that you’re comfortable with.

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