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How do you support a friend or loved one with cancer?

A common question I get asked is how to support someone with cancer. Sending a get well gift is much appreciated and a lovely gesture to show that you are thinking of them, but if you are close to the person who is ill, some emotional and practical support will be hugely appreciated.

Getting a cancer diagnosis is terrifying and everyone develops different coping strategies. Some will want to talk and cry, some will maintain a stiff upper lip and others may retreat into themselves.

My top tips are as follows:

  • Most importantly - BE THERE FOR THEM. Listen. Let them cry and talk about their fears without palming them off with platitudes such as 'you'll be FINE' or 'you've got to stay positive' etc. If the doctors aren't able to tell your friend they are gong to be fine, then how do you know?! And while we all try and stay positive, there are plenty of times that the reality and fear hits us and we just need a bloody good chat and cry - this is natural and healthy and they should not be made to feel guilty for feeling scared and worried. Do not ignore topics that make you feel uncomfortable if it is obvious that they want to talk about it.
  • Help the person who is ill to take a break when treatment permits to partake in some of the 'fun' things in life. This may involve some thinking outside the box as they may be unable to travel or be in busy public places to reduce the risk of infection, and food and drink may have lost its allure. Also many spas will not even give a facial to someone undergoing treatment (I mention this as had a few spa breaks booked during treatment - and was very disappointed when I found out I was unable to have any massages or facials). Also be aware that plans may need to be cancelled or postponed at the last minute if they are not well enough. Treatment can be very isolating and lonely, feeling trapped at home - so the opportunity to get out and do something enjoyable is truly appreciated.
  • Offer some help with transport. They may not be able to drive themselves, particularly after treatment and you will be surprised as to how often they need to travel to and from the hospital.
  • Offer to accompany them to any appointments or treatment sessions. It's nice to have some support and company - but often awkward to ask for it. 
  • Help with everyday tasks such as food shopping, cooking a nice meal, cleaning, childcare or walking the dog.
  • If you're not sure how to help, ask them.
  • Don't forget that the healing process continues long after active treatment and that your friend will be getting used to a 'new normal', coming to terms with the fear of the cancer returning, recuperating and recovering from treatment that will have taken a toll on them emotionally and physically - and may well be on continuous treatment that has unpleasant side effects, but with fewer outwardly obvious side effects like chemo.

It’s important to understand the needs of the person, and to find a good balance between what you think is right for them and what they want. You should also try to be aware of the limitations of what you can and can’t do.

It is also a very difficult time for those very close to the patient (I know as I am a cancer patient and also lost my mum to breast cancer when I was young). Macmillan  and Cancervive offer advice and support to loved ones and carers including phone support and meetings.

Previous article 5 Genuinely Useful Gifts To Give Someone Going Through Cancer Treatment

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