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How to Be There For Someone With Cancer

Inspire Health Event Calendar September 29, 2022

The following is a guest blog from our colleagues at the Gynecologic Cancer Initiative at https://gynecancerinitiative.ca/

With all the tests, treatments, and anticipation of news, the cancer journey is physically and mentally tiresome. For many cancer patients, their friends and family have been their biggest source of support in the constantly changing world of cancer.

Being there for your friend or family member during their cancer journey can make all the difference. There are many ways you can help a loved one who has cancer and show your support. Through conversations with patient partners, we have gathered some pieces of advice for those who want to support their loved ones with cancer:

Listen & Embrace All Sides of Them

Be someone who they can let their guard down with and embrace their honesty. When someone tells you how they feel, accept their thoughts and emotions– including those that are more on the negative side.

“Let me vent or say exactly how I feel whether you can relate or not. Do not make me feel like I have to be chipper and strong ALL the time. Yes, a positive outlook and perspective is important and likely vital, but sometimes I need to say, ‘I am scared’ or ‘I don’t know if I am ready for another round’. Acknowledge that some days will be tough,” a cancer survivor explains.

Don’t worry if you can’t think of the right thing to say. Just being there and listening without shutting them down is what your loved one needs. Paraphrase their words to show you understand or offer assurances such as, “I am holding this space with you. Please tell me how it feels for you right now.”

While it’s helpful to have positive folks around you, it is just as important to have people who embrace you when you are at your low points. Understand that your loved one is going through a lot. It takes so much energy to put on a brave face but remind them that they’re just as brave for expressing their true emotions. Let them know that you will be there for them regardless.

Offer to Help Through Small Acts of Kindness

When going through treatment, many patients have expressed that they were not in the space to think about things like meal planning, or felt too fatigued to do certain everyday tasks, such as driving.

If possible, don’t be vague about how you can help. Rather than asking “What can I do to help?”, try saying “Here is what I can do…”. Being specific about the type of help you can provide puts less of a burden on your loved one while still showing that you care.

Small acts of kindness can go a long way. Here are some things you can do to help out your loved one:

  • Start a meal train or offer to help provide them with meals
  • Check in on them and their family
  • Offer to drive them to their appointments
  • Offer to clean their house while they are at a doctor’s appointment
  • Offer to help with the responsibilities of the primary caregiver to help give them the energy to continue on

Click here for more wonderful ideas.

Don’t Add to the Stress

Leave old wounds in the past. If it’s not relevant to the present, it is likely not worth bringing up. Your loved one may already be stressed and tired as they go through their cancer journey, so it’s best to avoid bringing up things from the past that could stress them out even more.

For whatever reason, if conflict does arise, be willing to talk it out. Avoid heated arguments and holding grudges. Being patient and understanding are some of the best things you can do as a friend or family member.

Spend Time With Them & Let Them Just Be Their “Normal” Selves 

It is incredibly important to recognize that cancer does not change who they are. They are still the same person you’ve laughed and cried with before.

“People assume that you want to talk about cancer all the time, but that’s not the case. I’m still the same old me. I still like to chat, talk about old memories, and baseball, and spend time with the people I love. Having cancer doesn’t change any of that about me,” Michelle, a GCI patient partner, explains.

A cancer diagnosis shouldn’t change the way you perceive or treat your loved one. Even though things are constantly changing, your love and support are one of the few things that can remain constant. With that being said, you can always offer to swing by for a chat or watch a movie. Do things that you used to do together and cherish them for who they are– don’t let cancer change that.

Understand that Every Cancer Patient is Different

One of the biggest things you can take away from this article is that all cancer journeys, patients, and their opinions are different. It’s practically impossible to compare two people’s stories and expect the same thing to work for both people. Moreover, what one patient may find to be comforting and supportive may not be the same for others, so it never hurts to ask.

As Nancy Cleveland, a GCI patient partner has said, “Everyone probably has someone who has gone through the journey of cancer, but all cancers and all journeys are very, very different. How people react to it is also very different, so I think it really helps to just listen to them and respect that their thoughts, emotions and experiences are specific to them.”

Being able to respect your loved one for the unique individual that they are is one of the best things you can do to show your love and support.

For Patients Seeking Support

Another valuable point brought up by our patient partners is sometimes it may help to talk to someone outside of your personal circle, especially if you are experiencing emotional or mental distress. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed by all that is going on is a normal and valid feeling.

Michelle Lim, a patient partner says, “There is absolutely no shame in seeing a counsellor. Just being able to say to someone outside of your circle, ‘Wow, this is hard’ can help, especially since these people have the training to understand your emotions and have the tools to help you navigate through it.”

There are many patient and family counselling services available to help patients and their family navigate through these difficult times. BC Cancer has many resources available (including counselling), which can be found here.

Michelle also expresses the unique support available through cancer support groups. Although she was unaware of any at the time she received treatment, she explains that when you talk to other people with the same kind of cancer as you, you can learn some tricks or valuable words of advice that are specific to the type of cancer that you have. Many national cancer organizations may be hosting cancer support groups, so be sure to look some up if this may be of some interest to you.

Introducing InspireHealth: Supportive Cancer Care

The journey to better physical and emotional health during cancer starts with InspireHealth. For over 25 years, they have provided free, both one-on-one and group supportive care programs to help patients and their families through cancer. Areas of support include stress and mental health counselling; managing treatment side-effects; nutrition and cooking classes; exercise therapy; improving sleep and energy; and managing work, life, and relationships. They also have a monthly “Self-Care for Support People” class. Services are available at their centres in Vancouver, Victoria, and Kelowna, as well as virtually.

Nonetheless, the cancer journey is one that you are never alone in. Simply being there for your loved one and showing emotional support can help provide them with the strength to continue through this journey. In this difficult time, just live in the moment and take it one step at a time with those who love and support you cheering you on along the way.