When someone you love is faced with something as unfamiliar and unpredictable as a cancer diagnosis, everything around you might seem like it’s falling apart. What do you do? What do you say? How do you support them through this? How do you support yourself?
Here are a few things to remember as you work through this situation with someone you love.
1. It’s time to forget everything you think you know about fighting cancer
No two cancer experiences are alike. While one person’s story may be enough to get you through today, your loved one probably won’t feel the same. You can read all the books and articles out there, but in reality, cancer has a way of behaving unpredictably, either for better or worse.
2. People with cancer want to talk about things other than cancer
There will be times your loved one wants to talk about what they’re going through, but don’t be surprised if those times seem few. Those battling cancer don’t want to bring up cancer in every single conversation they have with you. Often, they’ll just want to talk about the same things the two of you always talk about: their favorite sports team or the latest book they read. Just go with it. Save “cancer talk” for their next doctor’s appointment, unless they bring it up first.
3. Sometimes all you need to do is listen
Someone faced with a cancer diagnosis more than likely understands that you don’t understand what they’re going through. They don’t expect you to. They also don’t expect you to give them unsolicited advice or to constantly shower them with positive messages. Sometimes all they need is for someone to listen to them. Being that person for them is more helpful and meaningful than you might realize.
4. Someone with cancer needs encouragement, not advice
If your loved one has a doctor they really trust, they will lean on him or her for advice about their circumstances. They probably don’t expect that kind of support from you, too. While their relationship with their doctor may be all business, they might want their relationship with you to be the exact opposite. A simple, “I’ll be right here, we’re going to get through this” before an appointment might be just what they need from you.
5. A small act of kindness goes a long way
Something as small as picking up a newspaper or making a quick Target run on your way to visit them at home can mean much more to them than it might to you. It’s the little things that really make a difference.
6. Be observant
Your loved one might not always feel comfortable or able to tell you what they need. Pay close attention to their words and body language. Someone who is used to being independent can feel very overwhelmed when they start to realize they need to depend on others for basic necessities. It helps to ask them what they need or to ask them specifically, “Can I take care of that for you?”
7. Be patient
Keep in mind that you are not the only one faced with this reality. Your loved one doesn’t know how to handle it most of the time either. They will probably get frustrated, and so will you. Be patient. If you need to take a few deep breaths, go ahead. Caring for someone with cancer is a journey filled with twists and dead ends. It doesn’t get easier, but you might be able to settle into a rhythm to make things more bearable.
8. Be positive
Fill their environment with positivity as often as you can. This doesn’t mean you have to shower them with cards or avoid talking about the negative things going on in your life. Encourage them, especially when they’re having a rough day, the same way you would want someone to encourage you. Let them know you are there for them, no matter what.
9. Give them space when they need it
Try not to take it personally if your loved one seems to be pushing you away. That’s not their intention at all. Everyone grieves in their own way, and sometimes your loved one might just need some alone time. Respect that need. Let them know you can be there if they need you, but don’t be there if they’re trying to communicate they need to be alone.
10. Don’t claim you understand what they’re going through
Odds are, you don’t. Everyone’s experience with cancer is different, the same way every type of cancer varies in the way it affects the body. You may have dealt with similar traumatizing experiences before or you might have even battled cancer yourself, but now is not the time to bring up your experiences to show your loved one you “get it.”
11. Be respectful and supportive of their decisions, even if you don’t agree
Ultimately, treatment decisions are still completely up to them. If they make decisions without consulting you first, or you don’t agree with the decision they have made, now is not the time to speak up. Those battling cancer are losing control of many parts of their life, they may have once taken for granted. Let them have control over their treatment. Let them have this moment.
12. You need support, too – but not from your loved one who’s suffering
When faced with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, grieving can hit you hard. It’s not easy to take care of someone you love and deal with your feelings at the same time. You might need support, too – and that’s okay – but seeking out and expecting support from the person you’re taking care of, isn’t the best way to go. Find a friend, another family member or even a professional to help get you through it, so you have the strength to help the one who needs it most.
13. There’s still a person underneath the pain
Not even just “a person” – a person you love. Undergoing treatment and the disease itself will change them on the outside, sometimes so much so that you barely recognize them. They’re still there. They’re still the same person you have always known and loved. Look past the physical changes. You’ll see them there, and once you do, that’s something you’ll be able to hold onto forever.
Above all, remember to allow yourself time to slow down and take things moment by moment. Whatever happens, you are going to make it through this.