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How to Help a Loved One with Cancer

How to Help a Loved One with Cancer

Written by SMH Oncology Clinical Counselor Elizabeth Bornstein

An estimated 1.8 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the US by the end of 2020, according to the National Cancer Institute, and the number of cancer survivors in the United States is expected to rise to 22.2 million by 2030, compared to 16.9 million in January 2019. 

With cancer affecting so many, there’s no doubt we’ve all been touched by the disease, whether through our own personal journey or the diagnosis of a loved one, colleague or acquaintance.

When someone you care about is living with cancer, it’s natural to want to help and support them, but unless you’ve traveled that road yourself, you may be unsure of how to help — and possibly even at a loss for what to say. 

How Can I Help?

Here are some ways you can support someone managing cancer and show that you care:

1.    Offer a listening ear.

Let your loved one tell you what is happening and ask what help is needed. Talking through the challenges may alleviate some of their burden. Be sure to let your loved one lead the conversation.

  • Don’t give unsolicited advice.
  • Don’t ask a lot of questions.
  • Don’t reference another person’s cancer experience. (“My friend has cancer and…”, etc.)
  • Don’t speak in clichés, such as “be positive” or “everything happens for a reason.” It’s unrealistic to be positive 100% of the time.
  • Don’t assume there is a cure or that being cancer free is possible. Cancer is often treated as a chronic illness.
  • Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to talk. Send a heartfelt card instead.

2.    Be there.

Suggest your loved one join you for a “break” from cancer, even if just for brief periods and even if you can only do it virtually or over the phone. If you cannot visit them safely in person due to COVID-19 concerns, opt for a virtual visit; if they're not up for company at all, encourage them to do some of these on their own.

  • Ask for permission to stop by and just spend time together from a safe physical distance. Or have a video chat via smartphone apps like WhatsApp or FaceTime; click here for a how-to on using the apps.
  • Offer to join them for a walk.
  • Share in some joy: Watch comedies, or tell funny jokes and stories.
  • Offer to manage communication with other loved ones. Having a single point of contact for updates can save them from a borage of (well-meaning) emails, calls and texts and having to explain the same information over and over. Group emails are often a good solution.

3.    Offer hands-on help.

It feels good to help. If you can’t provide tangible assistance, offer to be the point person to set up what help is needed. Don’t take it personally if help isn’t needed just yet. Offer again later.

You can offer to:

  • Drive to appointments.
  • Do a load of laundry.
  • Make a trip to the grocery store.
  • Drop off a meal.
  • Take care of the children.
  • Take the dog for a walk or pet sit.
  • Run a few errands.

4.    Encourage community connections and support — online or in person.

Many of Sarasota Memorial Thrive Program's peer-to-peer support and education groups (for cancer patients and their loved ones) are now meeting online. Call 941-917-7827 for details, and click here for the calendar of events, classes and meetings that are now available online.

Sarasota Memorial’s Oncology Counseling program also provides cancer patients and loved ones help with emotional support and coping strategies, as well as help with problem-solving and identifying cancer-specific resources in our community and beyond. To connect with SMH's oncology counseling team, call 941-917-7293.

Know that your support can make all the difference in helping a loved one live well with cancer and manage the challenges of diagnosis, treatment and survivorship.

 “With communication, comes understanding and clarity. With understanding, fear diminishes. In the absence of fear, hope emerges. And in the presence of hope, anything is possible.” ~ Ellen Stovall, past president, National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship
Sarasota Memorial Oncology Counselor Elizabeth BornsteinA licensed, oncology and advanced palliative- and hospice-certified clinical social worker, Elizabeth Bornstein, MSSA, LCSW, OSW-C, APHSW-C, oversees and provides oncology counseling at Sarasota Memorial’s Cancer Institute. She has advanced training in mind-body medicine and expressive arts, and has facilitated oncology counseling for nearly two decades.

Posted: Oct 13, 2020,
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