How to Support A Loved One with Cancer

Cooking a meal, picking up around the house or taking the kids to school may seem inconsequential in the face of a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, but these acts of kindness could be most helpful to someone facing a life-changing disease. Experts say that supporting someone with cancer is often as simple as giving them the same compassion, agency and space that you did before they were diagnosed.

“The big thing is to play to your strengths,” says Kathryn Witte, a nurse navigator for TriHealth’s lung and GI multidisciplinary clinic.

“If you're a good cook, then bake something and bring it in,” says Witte, who works with cancer patients from diagnosis through all stages of treatment and recovery. “If you're someone that's funny, then bring the humor; kind of take their mind off things.”

There’s no perfect response when a friend or family member breaks the news that they’ve been diagnosed. Nor is it always clear how to best support someone who’s been living with the disease.

“Some people are more independent and like their privacy, and you have to respect that,” Witte says. “Other people want all their friends and family at their appointments. You have to gauge what kind of person your family member or friend is.”

Concern and curiosity are reasonable reactions, Witte says, but questions and well-intentioned favors often come at a dizzying rate, particularly right after diagnosis – an already overwhelming time for many new patients.

“When I first reach out to them, we don’t really know the extent of their disease, so they’re definitely hopeful but nervous,” Witte says. “Generally, they’re pretty surprised and they don’t fully understand, ‘what does this mean for me; what does my life look like from here on out?’”

Each year, more than one million Americans are diagnosed with cancer. So even if you or an immediate family member hasn’t been directly affected by this disease, there’s a good chance you’re close with someone who has.

Cancer can bring a suite of changes to an individual’s life, and acclimation is easier for some than others. Witte says that while supporters shouldn’t ignore their loved one’s diagnosis, carrying on relationships as per usual can provide consistency in an unstable time.

“You should be true to yourself,” Witte says. “I don’t think changing your relationship at any point is very helpful. I think keeping things normal, if possible, has some benefit.”

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t lend a hand to someone dealing with cancer. Witte says that free time is in short supply for many patients, particularly those receiving regular treatments that can disrupt normal routines.

Witte has a few recommendations for those looking to help their loved ones with cancer:

  • Provide transportation to and from appointments
  • If they have children, help them get to or from school
  • Take care of chores around the house, such as cleaning up or mowing the lawn
  • Prepare a meal for the patient or their family

If you can’t directly assist a cancer patient, Witte says there are other ways to provide support, such as donating to cancer research organizations, participating in cancer walks and other events, and educating yourself about the disease.

Above all, Witte says, the key is respect.

“Respect the patient’s and their family members’ boundaries and their privacy,” Witte says. “We want to be helpful and be hands on, but sometimes they need time to process and to be independent.”

“Balance that out with being supportive,” she said.

Tags Cancer