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How to Help Someone You Love When the Diagnosis Is Cancer

April 05, 2019

A cancer diagnosis is an emotional experience. As the loved one of a cancer patient, it can be challenging to know exactly what to say and how to say it. But it’s important not to withdraw when your family member or friend needs your support. Don’t let yourself become so preoccupied with the “perfect” thing to do that you do nothing at all. Here are some tips for how to show love, support and compassion in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

 

Active listening is key

Everyone processes a cancer diagnosis differently. As Priya Jain, MD, oncologist with Kettering Cancer Care, says, “It’s a process in learning what is or is not okay with that patient. For some patients, it’s helpful to talk about everything. For others, they prefer not to talk about it that much.” Either way, Dr. Jain notes that active listening is important.

“Be a listener and be patient,” says Dr. Jain. “Make yourself available and engage with what you’re hearing from them.” Some people may want a loved one to accompany them to chemotherapy treatments; others may want to go alone or with only one or two specific people. For many who are going through cancer treatments, even the prospect of going out for dinner can be exhausting. Simultaneously, feelings of isolation can lead to a sense of despair.

“I recommend inviting your loved one to all the normal things, but make it clear that you understand they might have some limitations or not want to come right now,” says Dr. Jain. “Sometimes we think so much and hesitate so much about the ‘perfect’ thing to say or do that it can backfire. The more you make yourself available, the more your loved one is likely to appreciate you, in whatever way that means for them.”

 

Practice positivity

Many times, notes Dr. Jain, people hear the word cancer and assume the worst. “Cancer affects so many people, but everybody’s journey is different,” Dr. Jain says. “Positivity doesn’t hurt anything, and it helps patients stay strong when their loved ones are positive.” A cancer diagnosis is a heavy experience, but as a supporter, don’t jump to the worst case scenario. Gentle positivity and encouragement can help strengthen you're loved one at this vulnerable time.

It’s also important to maintain honesty and communication. “You won’t always get it right, and it’s okay to admit that,” says Dr. Jain. “If you said something that wasn’t perfect, tell your loved one you didn’t know how to handle that and communicate with them. We all make mistakes.”

Dr. Jain says that she sees patients and their loved ones grow when they experience support through a cancer diagnosis. “No one wants to ever go through cancer, but I see people become stronger every day through their journey, and I’m privileged to walk hand-in-hand with them through that experience.”

 

Here to help

For further resources and education on you or a loved one’s cancer journey, or to find a support group, visit our website.