July 16, 2018

Here’s some practical advice for friends and family of a person diagnosed with cancer.

A cancer diagnosis can be scary. Friends and family are often uncertain about how best to support and help a loved one after a diagnosis. Here’s some helpful advice.

What is something a loved one can say that really helps a cancer patient and why?

Two things that are very simple:

  • If you want to talk about it, I’m here to listen.
  • I’m not sure what to say but I want you to know I care.

It really opens the door up for the patient to know that the other person is there and wants to listen, be available and supportive. Many times people don’t always know what to say, so often they say nothing and that can be more hurtful.

How are some ways people can show support?

One of the first things is for people to simply show up. That means being physically present or checking in with phone calls or texts or sending cards or just bringing things without the expectation of the patient reciprocating or responding.

  • Step up and help with specific tasks, such as offering to be a point person for communication. Serve as a patient’s updater or person of contact so when friends and family have questions and want to know how things are going there is someone in their circle that serves as a communication captain.
  • Go to medical appointments to take notes about the visit and to be company in the waiting room or during long appointments or treatments.
  • Focus on more than just the cancer. Acknowledge the patient is more than their disease and have conversations about something other than cancer.
  • Let a patient express all of their feelings. Sometimes it’s going to be to cry, sometimes it’s going to be to vent, sometimes it’s going to be to laugh, sometimes it’s going to be to say nothing at all. Allowing the person to express the full range of emotions is very helpful.

What are some gift or task ideas for friends that want to help?

It can be really helpful to have coordination of caregiving and support offered by friends and family so the patient doesn’t have 10 meals dropped off on one night. It’s important to know there might be more long-term support needed, so that everyone doesn’t provide assistance in a week and then just walk away. Some people make Excel spreadsheets to track or use online resources for sign-ups so it can be really easy to coordinate support and caregiving offers.

Some people are doers and they can go grocery shopping, pick up medications, deliver meals, take the kids for play dates, take the spouse and/or children out for a meal or an outing like the zoo, mow the lawn, walk the dog.

Some gift ideas for the patient specifically:

  • Short-term or long-term Netflix subscription;
  • A music subscription;
  • Gift cards to local grocery stores;
  • Books or gift cards for online books.

What if a patient doesn’t appear grateful for supporters’ help?

When people are dealing with cancer, there are lot of moving parts and pieces. They may not be able to respond to say thank you in the same time-sensitive manner they would otherwise. Give your loved one some slack and know they will likely say thank you at some point, but that it can be incredibly overwhelming to receive the outpouring of gestures and support. It can also create some guilt for the patient, who might have difficulty thinking about how to repay those who are helping.

Don’t expect immediate responses. It doesn’t mean that the gift or services are not received — it just means it’s hard to process it all.

What is the most important piece of advice for someone with a friend who is going through cancer treatment or has just finished?

Don’t make assumptions about how they are doing, feeling or responding to their cancer experience — instead ask and listen.

The end of cancer treatment is not the end of the experience. It’s not like you finish treatment and immediately go back to your normal life. That’s a hard realization for the person living with cancer as well, as the family or friend to know that the experience goes past treatment.

Recovery from a cancer experience can often take longer physically and emotionally than you might expect. There’s no timeline for recovery. It’s not like, on this day you’re going to miraculously feel better — it’s a very gradual process.

Learn more

The Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center is a national leader in patient care and research. Vanderbilt offers the region’s most complete range of oncology care, from advanced imaging to team-based treatment options to genetic cancer medicine and the latest in therapies being studied in clinical trials. Learn more here.