11 Things to Say and Do to Help a Loved One with Cancer

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When someone close to you is diagnosed with cancer – and statistics show one in two Aussies will receive this devastating news at some point in their lives – it can be difficult to know what to say and do.

Naturally, as one of their nearest and dearest, you’ll have many questions you wish you could ask. What stage is it? Will you be undergoing chemotherapy? How do you feel? Are you going to be okay?

One question in particular is sure to arise, and it can often be the hardest to answer – How can I help?

We’ve teamed up with Cancer Council to offer some advice on what helps (and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t) when supporting a loved one with cancer.

1. DO ask them how they are

“Sometimes sitting silently and giving your loved one time to speak can be invaluable,” Cancer Council CEO Professor Aranda tells Cudo. “Importantly, ask the person how you can best support them and take your cues from them.

“Don’t let fear of saying the wrong thing block you – just let them know that you’ll be there for them for as long as they need and ask open questions to help you understand how they are feeling.”

2. DON’T ask probing questions

Having cancer can be very personal, so if your loved one shares information about their diagnosis, treatment or prognosis, remember that this may not be something they want to share. Similarly, if they offer this information freely, but do not want it shared, respect their privacy by keeping it to yourself.

So, what should you ask instead? “Questions such as ‘what is worrying you most right now?’ or ‘what help would make the most difference right now?’ can open the door to a supportive conversation,” Professor Aranda suggests.

3. DO keep them involved

Cancer may be a major part of their life but it doesn’t have to define them as a person. Try to keep inviting them for that weekly coffee date (or perhaps moving it to a day that fits in with their treatment schedule) and continue inviting them to dinner parties and trivia nights but understand if they might not be well enough to come. You may need to be more flexible and travel to them or make your catch-ups something more manageable for them.

4. DON’T bring up stories about others

“Typically, the first reaction is to try and reassure your loved one with stories of miracle treatments or stories about ‘my cousin’s wife’s best friend who survived cancer’,” Professor Aranda explains. “Giving health advice may lead to false reassurance or unrealistic hope, so recognise your role as to support your loved one and respect that they have a medical plan in place.”

5. DO talk about things other than cancer

Although it’s important to let them know you care about how they’re feeling, keep in mind that cancer isn’t their whole life – there are plenty of other things they may want to discuss, including what’s going on in your life.

6. DON’T make observations about their appearance

Remember that your loved one may already be feeling quite self-conscious about how they look during treatment, so commenting on their weight or even telling them they don’t look ‘sick’ may make their self-esteem drop even more.

7. DO acknowledge that life isn’t always fair

“Some people may want to talk about cancer happening for a reason or ‘something good will come of this’ which often doesn’t feel helpful. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason – sometimes it’s just damn bad luck and comments like this can add to people’s feelings that they could have somehow prevented it.”

8. DON’T offer clichés and assurances

It can be tempting to tell your loved one to stay positive or that everything will be okay, but providing potentially false hope is never a good idea. It’s perfectly normal for them – and you – to be worried.

9. DO offer practical suggestions of how you can help

“Often the first thing that comes to mind is to ask, ‘How can I help?’. While probably well-intentioned, it can be difficult for someone with cancer to ask for favours that might seem very ordinary – like paying the bills or cleaning the bathroom,” Professor Aranda explains.

“Rather than waiting to be asked, make a mental list of all the things that you might do to keep your household running during the week, and chances are others share most of the same priorities. Small things like taking out the garbage, cooking meals or even helping with the children’s homework can be a huge help for someone with cancer.”

10. DON’T offer unsolicited advice

“While you might want to try to reassure your loved one that everything is going to be ok, remember that your role is to provide support, not to provide medical advice.”

11. DO show them you care

“The most important thing is just to be there for a loved one who has cancer – both physically and emotionally,” Professor Aranda says. “You might not feel like you have exactly the right words – but not shying away or disappearing is important.”

In addition to talking with your loved one, you could show them you care in other ways, like taking them out to the movies, sending them a bunch of flowers or a thoughtful card, picking up their groceries or driving them to treatment.

“We know that coping with cancer is challenging, not only for people with cancer but also their loved ones and friends,” Professor Aranda explains.

“Cancer Council offers a comprehensive range of support services to Australians with every type of cancer, across Australia. Our support services include information, counselling, practical and emotional support, all designed with and for people affected by cancer, for every stage of the cancer journey. If you are unsure how to help your friend or loved one, a call to 13 11 20 to speak to one of our cancer nurses can really help.”

Cancer Council relies on the generosity of people like you to continue their incredible work in cancer research, prevention, support and advocacy, whether in the form of volunteering or donations.

You can also show your support by becoming involved in Cancer Council fundraising events like Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea, Daffodil Day, Relay for Life and Girls Night In, and by purchasing Cancer Council SunSmart products.

To find out how you can contribute to their life-saving work, call their free, confidential helpline on 13 11 20 or click here to donate.