How do I support my loved one who has cancer?

How do I support my loved one who has cancer?
By Dana Nolan, LMHC

As a counselor who specializes in working with patients struggling with serious illnesses, I get many questions from caregivers about what they should say or do that is helpful and supportive. We are all very different in terms of what we find supportive when we are sick. Some people like a lot of support, reassurance and offers of practical assistance. Other people prefer to be treated completely normal (as if there is no health crisis at all) by their family and friends UNLESS they ask for assistance. There is not one right way to support someone you love when they have cancer. There is just the way that works best for them AND you!

My suggestion is to ask your loved one HOW you can best support them. Then, listen to what they have to say. Another good option is to really think about what you can do for them and offer specifics. Do you have the ability to drive them to a doctor/treatment appointment one day a week? Are you willing to mow their lawn while they are in treatment? Are you able to bring a family meal to them every other week? Are you available for them to call 24/7 if they just want to talk or cry? Many people are reluctant to ask for help when they have cancer because they don’t know how much is too much to ask. If you offer something specific, then there is no question in their mind what help you mean when you make the offer of assistance or support.

One last suggestion is to resist the temptation to tell your loved one with cancer to “always be positive and strong.” It is easy to feel positive when someone gets good news from the doctor or they are having a side-effect free day. But, when they are really struggling with side effects or just got news that their treatment isn’t working as planned, then pressure to “be positive” doesn’t feel helpful and often leads the person with cancer to feel as if they are failing as a patient. Our loved ones with cancer are entitled to every single emotion that accompanies their experience (the good, the bad and the ugly!) We can best support them by just listening to what they are feeling and accepting their sadness, tears or anger at their current situation just as we would listen to them and accept their emotions when they are sharing good news or joy that their cancer is in remission!

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