Learning a friend or family member has cancer is overwhelming — you’re unsure about how to react. Should you express your sadness? Should you remain strong? Should you jump into action by making meals or offering other assistance? And, keep in mind, the person who’s been diagnosed doesn’t know what kind of support they need.
To provide practical advice, we asked support group leaders who partner with El Camino Hospital Cancer Center what they consider most helpful to cancer patients and survivors.
Walt D’Ardenne, lead facilitator for the Silicon Valley Advanced Prostate Cancer Support Group who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December 2001, considers what he would do differently and how he would advise someone who’s just learned they have cancer.
“The biggest mistake I made was not taking enough time to investigate all my treatment options and not attending a cancer support group meeting,” he said. “Secondly, find ‘an artiste’ — someone who’s a leading expert who can perform any treatment you select. This ensures the doctor gets it right the first time, because often a second time isn’t possible. Lastly, get a second opinion by an expert.” For prostate cancer, treatment choices are very dependent on an accurate diagnosis. Treatment recommendations do vary.
Offer Emotional Support
Many patients who’ve undergone cancer treatment say it was the emotional support from family and friends that made a difference. Others’ positive outlook can give patients the encouragement they need. In fact, research has shown that patients in support groups do better than those who aren’t.
Initially, the most important thing you can do for your friend or family member is to simply be there for them and spend time with them. Notice how their daily activities change throughout cancer treatment. This can help you determine what they need at each stage of their treatment.
Ann Morey, with Healthy Young Attitude (HYA) — a cancer support group for young adults age 18 to 40 — says that working with young cancer patients has given her some valuable insight.
“Ask, listen and learn to be supportive, and empathize,” she said. “Sometimes just being there is the best help of all.”
If you can, take daily walks with the person. Daily walks keep energy levels up and help them stay positive while going through treatment. Also, she recommends patients keep a blog during treatment.
“Writing a blog is a great way to release your emotions,” she said. “It can be very cathartic. It also updates your support network on your progress, so you don’t have to repeat it every time you see someone. It also helps keep you busy — especially if you’re taking time off from work to go through treatment.”
Faustine Comstock, facilitator for El Camino Hospital cancer support groups, stresses how important it is to reach out with kindness to friends going through challenges.
“People remember your intention more than anything you say,” she said. “Reaching out says, ‘I care,’ or ‘I’m thinking about you.’ Forget about ‘fixing it,’ and don’t worry about saying something wise or saying the right thing. Asking and listening is enough. Listening means being quiet and open to what they have to say, without giving advice. Don’t try to be a cheerleader by minimizing their worries or telling them how to think or feel.”
Faustine also suggests asking questions that show you’re interested in how they’re doing, such as, “How’s it going for you today?” or “What’s that like for you?” Allow them to set the agenda. Sometimes they might not want to talk about what’s happening with them and would rather hear about what’s going on in your life.
What You Can Do
Offering practical assistance can be very helpful. It can give your friend or family member the gift of time, help them conserve energy, and make them feel cared about. You can do things like:
- Stocking the freezer with meals
- Bringing them fresh produce from the farmers market
- Providing or arranging childcare
- Driving them to appointments
- Reviewing the latest research
- Being the point of contact to give updates or coordinate tasks for friends
There’s no limit to the ideas you can come up with to support someone who has cancer. The first step is asking how you can help. Your first offer may be turned down, but don’t let that deter you. Keep offering emotional support, or find things you can do to help the caregiver. Stay engaged and show support.
Cancer patients have the best outcome when they have a supportive team. If you want help, call the El Camino Hospital Cancer Center to learn about our programs that offer social, emotional and spiritual support to cancer patients. Call us at 650-988-8338.
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