World Cancer Day: 5 ways to support someone you love with cancer

by Ariela Paulsen
World Cancer Day: 5 ways to support someone you love with cancer

Tomorrow is World Cancer Day, an opportunity to stop and think about everyone in our lives who has been affected by this widespread disease.  It’s not always easy, however, to know how to support someone you love through such a complicated experience.  We’ve drawn from our own experiences, advice from Friends’ in the Fight, and an interview with influencer Christina Costa to bring you this guide:

1. ask what they need, then follow their lead

Supporting someone through an experience we can’t imagine is overwhelming.  How can we possibly know the right thing to say or do?  Well, we can’t.  And even if we have experience, each person’s needs are different.  One person might want light distraction, while another craves someone to talk to about all the painful details.  That’s why communication is key!  Simply saying “I want to be here for you but don’t know how.  What would you like from me?” can open a door for a more helpful kind of help.  Don’t be surprised if they need time to figure out what it is they need, or if their requests change over time.  Specific offers can also reduce overwhelm; it may help to say “in this moment, would you like me to come over to watch a comedy or do you want to talk about what happened at your appointment yesterday?”

Bottom line — just being there in any capacity is better than radio silence! As Christina put it,

“Be there. It’s so simple, costs nothing, and is not something I would have thought of before this experience. I will never ever ever forget the people who reached out – sent messages, letters, notes, DMs, called me. A very common response that I am sure others can relate to is the “we don’t want to bother you” – in my personal experience, this doesn’t exist. Someone going through tragedy is only focused on the tragedy and the absolute best thing you can do is check in … especially when things seem ‘calm’.”

Check out our Guide to Difficult Conversations and Celebrating the Heart of Your Relationships

2. take a load off

Any opportunity to reduce your loved one’s stress is a good place to start.  With overwhelming decisions, constant appointments, no energy, and chemo brain, cancer is a full-time occupation.  Forget running a household, keeping up with hobbies and friends, or having a job.  Even taking one thing off their list can make a meaningful difference.  Offer to run errands, give a ride to the hospital, or cook a family-sized meal.  Keep in mind that, while they love seeing you and appreciate the help, they may not be up for chatting.  Dropping off a frozen meal with a simple smile, hug, or “we love you” card may be more supportive than coming in for a chat while you’re at it. 

If you’ve got a little more capacity, help organize their networks. Encourage others to reach out. Set up a page for donations (cancer is expensive!) or meal drop offs. Your action alone is no small impact. But organizing a community effort is massive.

In Christina’s experience,

“Though I am the ‘face’ of the fundraising, there were so many people who encouraged me and helped me brainstorm and then stayed engaged and even after they had bought a shirt and supported me, they shared the fundraiser with their own family and friends.”

Read about the importance of love languages in offering support here.

3. nourish their roots

When harsh winds threaten to blow us over, it’s our roots that keep us standing.  Yet these roots, the people most integral to our lives, are often affected as much as we are by medical challenges.  If they start to fall apart, we will have a much harder time standing.

So, if you’re wanting to support someone you love, also look to their roots.  How are their kids, parents, spouse, and best friends coping?  Find ways to help them through the difficult times.  Ask if they are ok, and let them know that you see their struggle as well.  

“Check in with their caregivers. I have been so blessed with people reaching out to my mom, dad, and husband. It makes me feel so good to know that there are people doing things for them when I’m not able to.”

Check out How to be a True Friend in the Fight here.

4. give the gift of comfort

Not everyone loves receiving — or giving — gifts, but if you do want to show you’re there through a care package, what exactly should you buy?  In short, think comfort.  Physical comfort can go a long way when our bodies are experiencing pain, nausea, and fatigue.  Long infusion sessions can be cold and uncomfortable as well.  Anything cozy, soft, and warm will likely be a hit.  Anything else to show you see the challenges of life with cancer can be meaningful.  For example, medical organizers, a comfortable (yet stylish!) bag to carry chemo distractions or medical gear, or something cozy to wear that provides easy access to infusion sites.  Another winner is positive distractions like books, movies, meditation recordings, or brain-teaser puzzles.  And again, anything to take a load off everyday life is a relief — money towards treatments, house cleaners, or subscriptions to a meal delivery service are a great choice.

Want more ideas?  Check out our Cancer Gift Guide here!

5. keep it coming

Finally, remember that cancer is an ongoing struggle. It’s not like a bad flu, where you can pitch in for a week and then figure they’ve got it from there.  One of the most isolating moments of chronic illness is when the world has moved on or forgotten, yet your daily life is still just as impacted as it was on day one.  Be the friend who still shows up when everyone else has moved on.  Keep showing up however you can for the months or years of appointments, treatments, surgeries, and all the psychological aftermath.  That means choosing ways to help that are sustainable.  Don’t throw everything you’ve got into the first month just to burn out.  Even a “thinking of you” text or card can show you see their struggle and you care.  Be prepared for the toll this can take on your own mental health, and be sure to practice self-care to ensure that you can be there for the long-haul.

And as Christina points out, it’s never too late to reconnect:

“I can’t overemphasize this enough. I have heard from people I haven’t talked to in years and it has made my whole week at times. It’s never too late to reach out. Seriously – think of someone who maybe has had a diagnosis in the past 5 years that was distant or you never asked how they were doing. Reach out to them today <3 “

This World Cancer Day, take a moment to reach out to those in your life who have been affected by cancer.  Let the know just how grateful you are to have them in your life! 💚💜

Looking to connect with more patients and caregivers? Join our Friends in the Fight facebook group!

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