Helpful Helpers

helpful helpers



Do you know someone with cancer? Unfortunately, most people do. A cancer diagnosis can leave friends and family unsure of how best to support a loved one. Are there topics that shouldn’t be broached? What if the wrong thing is said? Fretting over a proverbial union of foot and mouth may cause disengagement at a time when support is most keenly required. Read on for suggestions that may help you to help a loved one through a cancer diagnosis.

Helpful Helpers #1

Listen and Let Them Lead.

When I asked my patients to share support tips for family and friends, one emphatic response was “LISTEN.” This simple—but powerful—suggestion underpins any piece of advice I could offer. If your friend wants to talk about the weather or their new shoes, follow along. If the conversation turns to reflections on mortality, fear, and grief, resist the urge to steer back to sunny, happy, shiny things.

Clock Nonverbal Cues.

Is your friend or loved one feeling up to a visit today? Are they tired or in pain? Clarify your suspicions with gentle inquiries.

Process Your Own Reaction.

Describing your struggle with their diagnosis may prevent further sharing while taking the focus off their needs.

Respect Boundaries.

Some people choose to announce their diagnosis to 1,000 followers while others tell only their immediate families. This is an intensely personal decision. Avoid taking offence if friends choose to go through cancer privately.

Prepare for a Long Road.

Some treatments last for months, while others continue for a lifetime, but over time the need for support is no less present. Provide consistent help or check in intermittently over the long term. At the end of treatment, new challenges may arise as treatment side effects may complicate a return to work and daily activities. Emotional support in the face of this reintegration is essential. Be patient.

Make Plans and Engage.

Offer invitations to social events rather than assuming a loved one can’t come. Be understanding of last-minute cancellations. Treatments and endless appointments mean a lot of sitting. Share your favorite podcast, artist, or Netflix binge. Better yet, offer to share the wait by coming along.

Make Concrete Offers.

Avoid saying things like “call if you need anything.” Nebulous suggestions burden the person with cancer with the task of figuring out how you can help them.

Support the Supporters.

Family members are the mainstay of at-home care and require their own support. Caregivers run the risk of simply burning out. If you visit a person with advanced needs, encourage caregivers to eat, rest, or leave the home during this time. Helping arrange alternate care will allow them to recharge and continue their support.

For people caring for their spouse, professional counseling helps navigate changing roles. Involving counselors for both parties allows each person to discuss their own fears and concerns freely.

A cancer diagnosis creates a world of uncharted territory for an individual and their social circle. Approaching this new world with respect, compassion, and an open ear will yield the best tools for ongoing support.

Photography provided by PeopleImages/E+/Getty Images.

support through change

Hair loss and other changes to appearance can be extremely distressing. Consider seeking support through the following options.

Cancer-specific exercise and yoga classes may make it easier to participate during treatment.

Mastectomy boutiques are stores offering specialized clothing and accessories to women in treatment.

Scalp cooling caps may help reduce hair loss during treatment for some patients and increase their hair volume following chemo.

Look Good Feel Better workshops help women with wig selection and makeup techniques.

Deborah Farmer


[email protected]

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