Hearing the words “It’s cancer” is the start of a life-altering journey for a patient as well as their loved ones. If you’re close with someone who is facing a cancer diagnosis, you’ve undoubtedly wondered, “What can I do?”
We asked two members of our Cancer Care Navigation (CCN) team—care coordinator Shawn Casey and One Medical physician Longhang Nguyen, MD—for their expert advice on how to help a family member or friend cope. One Medical’s CCN team supports patients by creating a safe space for them to voice their concerns, make informed decisions about their treatment plan, and address everything from clinical issues to insurance questions.
Here are eight ways to help a loved one going through cancer treatment.
1. Don’t provide your opinion unless asked.
If your friend or family member hasn’t asked for your opinion, don’t offer them advice, Nguyen advises.
“It can be tempting to weigh in based on your personal experiences, but that may just add to their burdens,” says Nguyen. Instead, she suggests “offering reassurance with words like: ‘I believe and trust that you know what’s right for you, and I will support you in that decision.'”
2. Don’t try to problem solve.
As much as you want to help, don’t try to solve their problems or say you know how they feel.
“The reality is, you can’t solve this problem and you likely don’t know exactly how they feel,” says Casey.
3. Show up and listen.
Friends and family are the most helpful simply by being there to listen.
“Cancer and the concerns that come with it stay for a long time—beyond the first few months of treatment,” Casey says. “Stay involved, visit, call, write, ask how things are going, and listen.”
Nguyen suggests telling your loved one, “‘No matter where this journey takes us, I’ll be there for you.’ Hearing this from people who love you is incredibly reassuring because you realize they’re not pushing you to make a particular decision; they’re just there to hold your hand.”
4. Ask how you can help.
Remember that everyone requires a different level of support. Some want lots of visitors, some don’t want any.
“Don’t hesitate to ask what they want instead of assuming,” Casey notes.
5. Volunteer in small but powerful ways.
Whatever it is you feel you can offer, offer it. Your friend or family member can choose to receive it or not based on how they prefer to be supported.
Walk the dog, keep appointment reminders for them, take the kids for the night, cook meals, do the laundry, or offer rides to their treatments. “These everyday things become much more complicated when fighting cancer, and your friend or family member may not feel comfortable asking for help,” Casey notes.
6. Do everyday fun things together.
Casey suggests giving the gift of normalcy by doing everyday things.
“Hang out, watch a funny movie, play games, go to the park, walk on the beach. Do something relaxing and normal to take their mind off things,” says Casey.
7. Be their note taker.
If you’re accompanying a friend or family member to their appointments, offer to take notes for them—whether handwritten or recorded on a cell phone. Rather than trying to rely on memory to reconstruct what the doctor(s) said later on, the patient can recall, talk through, and consider their options.
Creating a less stressful place to process the information from their doctors’ visits is also important.
“Provide a safe space for your friend or family member to express their fears, vent frustrations, and come to an understanding of what’s best for them,” says Nguyen. “Be supportive, ask thoughtful questions, and remain optimistic.”
8. Share the load with other friends.
Finally, it can help to get more people involved. Casey suggests looking into an online resource to help organize and disperse your efforts among a group of friends, using tools such as Lotsa Helping Hands, Meal Train, and My Lifeline. These tools can help you do things such as organizing meal deliveries or creating a website to collect donations and post regular updates.
What have you found to be most helpful in dealing with a tough diagnosis—either your own of that of a loved one? Share your experiences in the comments section below.