How to support a loved one living with cancer

A cancer diagnosis changes the lives of the person with cancer and those around them. Offering support can make a huge difference.

Emotional support

A cancer diagnosis brings with it a multitude of emotions that can paralyze the person with cancer and greatly affect those closest to them. The immediate family is often affected by a wave of sadness, uncertainty and helplessness. The impact can also be felt by friends and colleagues. The extended family and friends play a significant role in supporting the affected person.

Emotional support can take many forms:

  • Listen to the emotions (sometimes negative) expressed by the person living with cancer.
  • Try not to judge manifestations of sadness, anxiety, and mood swings.
  • Maintain a family connection or friendship with the person who is ill, by checking in or visiting. Recovery may take several months. The bond should not be lost over time.
  • Accept that the ill person may not want to talk. However, they will appreciate an open mind and an attentive ear if they feel the need to confide in someone.


Practical support

Over and above the emotional aspect, which is a primary field of intervention, it is possible to offer support to a person with cancer in much more tangible ways. For example, you can:

  • Learn about the person’s illness.
  • Accompany them to medical appointments.
  • Write down the essential elements mentioned by the medical team to avoid losing information due to stress.

On a day-to-day basis, you can:

  • Help out with their children by accompanying them to their activities (swimming classes, homework, school outings, etc.) to promote physical recovery.
  • Offer entertainment, adapting it to their physical abilities and health.
  • Offer to run some errands (grocery shopping, pharmacy) or manual work or cleaning.
  • Offer to prepare some meals.

However, the wishes of the ill person must be respected. They will want to feel free to accept or decline your help and support. Although this may seem difficult, you should avoid the temptation to take control of the situation unless the person clearly wants to do so.


Common mistakes

Sometimes a great willingness to offer support can have the opposite of the desired effect. This is called "negative support". Here are some examples of attitudes to watch out for:

  • Preventing the ill person from expressing certain emotions, such as fear or sadness. This is often done to boost morale. Comments such as "you're a fighter" or "keep a positive attitude" are detrimental if they are used to silence the ill person who needs to talk about their feelings.
  • Minimizing the seriousness of the disease, such as "Nowadays, cancer is easier to treat" or "others have survived it". Make sure your comments are situation- appropriate.
  • Using sentences that start with "If I were in your shoes...". You are not!
  • Refusing to take into account how tired the person is. Going for a walk in the woods would certainly be good for them, but you must first respect the physical limitations imposed by the illness!

Fear of not doing the right thing mustn't deter you from offering your help to the ill person. You simply have to be able to adapt to the needs the person expresses.


Taking some time for yourself

Loved ones of a person with cancer must also be mindful of their own psychological balance so they don’t fall apart. Here are a few things to remember:

  • Be attentive to your own emotions. Accepting and expressing them will help you let go of them. Psychological help or participating in support groups may be helpful.
  • Make sure you take time out from the illness for yourself and come back with more energy to give to the person you are supporting.
  • Accept that you can't take care of everything. An illness like cancer often comes with its own set of unexpected events. Try to control the situation when possible; the rest of the time, letting go and accepting will be more beneficial.

Supporting someone with cancer can be an obstacle course that is best dealt with as a team. Communication within the team is key to crossing the finish line with success! Remember that you can also count on a teammate who knows about health and medication—your pharmacist!


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How to support a loved one living with cancer

A cancer diagnosis changes the lives of the person with cancer and those around them. Offering support can make a huge difference.
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