I was asked by Macmillan to give my top ten tips on supporting a loved one with cancer based on my experience. I thought I would share them here too.
1) The most important way to support a loved one with cancer is simply to be there for them. Cancer can be very isolating and treatment lasts a long time, so ensure your friend doesn't feel forgotten with regular phone calls and emails. Visits are also lovely, but check in advance that they are up to it and always make sure you are 100% healthy.
2) Many people want to send a token of their well-wishes, but be aware that flowers are banned in many hospitals and at home they may be inundated with flowers. Their day may well be brightened by receiving something other than flowers.
3) Avoid forced optimism and platitudes. How can you assure them they are going to be 'fine' when their medical specialists cannot give them that guarantee? While we all try and stay positive, there are plenty of times that the reality and fear hit us and we need a good chat and cry. This is natural and being told to 'remain positive' just makes us feel guilty for having a wobble.
4) Don't shy away from topics that make you feel uncomfortable if it is clear that they want to talk about them.
5) Help the person who is ill to take a break when treatment permits and 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.
6) Offer practical support such as help with everyday tasks such as food shopping, cooking a nice meal, cleaning, childcare, walking the dog or 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.
7) 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.
8) If you're not sure how to help, ask them.
9) Most importantly, take your lead from the patient. Some will want to talk about it and will appreciate a sympathetic ear, and will appreciate regular phone calls and visits. Others will prefer not to discuss their illness and prefer to talk about other things.
10) 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.